In an editorial appearing in the June/July issue of Free Inquiry, Robyn Blumner, the CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason &, Science, claims identity politics and cancel culture have “torn apart” the Humanist movement (as far as there is one) mostly because people criticized Dawkins for perpetuating anti-trans talking points.
That end result, we’re told, is a major “schism”:
… I fear that our cohesion as fellow humanists is being torn apart by a strain of identitarianism that is making enemies of long-standing friends and opponents of natural allies.
Just at a time when it is essential for all of us to come together to work arm-in-arm against Christian Nationalism and the rise of religious privilege in law, humanism is facing a schism within its own movement. It is heartbreaking to watch and even more disheartening to know that the continued breach seems destined to grow.
Today, there is a subpart of humanists, identitarians, who are suspicious of individuals and their freedoms. They do not want a free society if it means some people will use their freedom to express ideas with which they disagree. They see everything through a narrow affiliative lens of race, gender, ethnicity, or other demographic category and seek to shield groups that they see as marginalized by ostensible psychic harms inflicted by the speech of others.
We should all be fighting the same enemy, she suggests, but instead we’re fighting against each other. Why can’t critics just handle disagreement more maturely?
The problem with the argument here is that she uses right-wing rhetoric to exaggerate what those critics are actually saying. And—this may be the most damning thing about her essay besides her initial citation from Urban Dictionary—she neglects to explain why those critics are so upset in the first place.
She only offers two real examples of this supposed liberal overreach. The main one, not surprisingly, involves Richard Dawkins.
… A prime example is the decision last year by the American Humanist Association (AHA) to retract its 1996 award to Richard Dawkins as Humanist of the Year. The man who has done more than anyone alive to advance evolutionary biology and the public’s understanding of that science, who has brought the light of atheism to millions of people, and whose vociferous opposition to Donald Trump and Brexit certainly must have burnished his liberal cred became radioactive because of one tweet on transgender issues that the AHA didn’t like.
That’s all she says about what he did: one tweet that one group didn’t like led to cancellation.
Blumner won’t explain the details, but I will.
In 2015, Dawkins tweeted that trans women weren’t women because their chromosomes said otherwise, boiling a complicated and nuanced issue down to a simple binary. Then he added that he would still use their pronouns if they wanted as if he were doing them a favor.
It was a remarkably ignorant tweet. But maybe you give the guy a break. Maybe he didn’t realize the problems with what he was saying. It was, after all, 2015, and Dawkins was in his 70s. Maybe he just didn’t know why a seemingly harmless comment would be controversial.
But then, last year, he did it again. It was even more egregious this time around.
So now, he was comparing trans people to a white woman who pretended to be Black, said that being transgender was a choice, and acted like those who challenged any aspect of trans identities were the real victims. If that weren’t enough, he added “Discuss”… as if trans lives were a matter of debate. (Two days later, he tried to walk back some of this.)
As I wrote at the time, it was troubling that one of the best long-form science writers of all time was also one of the worst short-form writers. Questioning the humanity of trans people was basically a fun little hypothetical for him. Whether he knew it or not, he was parroting the arguments of conservative Christian pastors who have long fought against LGBTQ rights.
Criticizing that tweet was the extent of what most people could do because Dawkins is basically a one-man operation. The Center for Inquiry, which merged with his foundation, chose not to do anything in response, so that was pretty much it. He continued to release books and speak at large events (minus any pandemic-related cancellations).
But the American Humanist Association had one other option at their disposal. In 1996, they had awarded Dawkins their highest honor: Humanist of the Year. It’s the sort of award many large non-profits give to luminaries as a way to entice them to speak at their conventions. That’s not a bad thing! It’s a nice way to honor people who have made significant contributions in their field, and no doubt Dawkins was a high-profile atheist and science communicator, even a decade before The God Delusion was published.
Giving him that award, however, connected the AHA with Dawkins, and it was the only kind of leverage they had over him. So a week after Dawkins wrote his tweet, the AHA said it would retroactively rescind the honor. (They had done something similar only once before, after a past recipient was later accused of sexual misconduct.)
Was that a big deal? Not really. The AHA took away an honor 99.9% of people had never heard of—and one that I doubt most atheists even knew existed. Without looking it up, I’ll bet most of you couldn’t even name the past few recipients of the award.
There’s a valid argument to be made that rescinding the award over Dawkins’ tweet is absurd since other problematic recipients of the same honor in AHA’s history have not received the same “punishment.” But the point is: The AHA wanted to push back against Dawkins’ claims, and this was the most powerful way they felt they could do it. A press release just wouldn’t have had the same impact.
So was that a “cancellation”? Did Dawkins lose anything of value because the AHA rescinded the award? Of course not. He got some bad publicity, which is the price any public figure pays for saying stupid things, and that’s about it. (The AHA got plenty of backlash, too.)
And yet how did Blumner describe that whole situation in her essay?
She called it a “prime example” of how some fictional woke mob is “driving a wedge between good people everywhere.” She ignored all the reasons people criticized Dawkins’ tweet. Rather than addressing their concerns, she just accuses those critics of tearing apart a supposedly unified movement.
The other example she cites in her piece, by the way, is “a draft plan in California to deemphasize calculus as a response to persistent racial gaps in math achievement.”
Suddenly a subject as racially neutral as math has become a flashpoint for identitarians set on ensuring equality of outcomes for certain groups rather than the far-more just standard of equality of opportunity. In this freighted environment, reducing the need for rigor and eliminating challenging standards becomes a feasible solution. The notion of individual merit or recognition that some students are better at math than others becomes racially tinged and suspect.
Once again, that description ignores a very real and very complicated debate at the center of math education. Simply put, American schools often steer the best math students in the direction of calculus, even though that’s not necessarily the most useful subject for them. Statistics or data science are arguably more important to learn, and more relevant to our current lives compared to solving integrals and calculating derivatives, therefore pushing kids in those directions rather than calculus could be worthwhile, especially when the reality is that students of color sometimes struggle with that subject. (As the New York Times notes, “calculus is not even offered in most schools that serve a large number of Black and Latino students.”)
None of that means those students aren’t gifted in math, only that demanding they succeed at calculus—and only calculus—is extremely short-sighted. There are many ways students can be excellent mathematicians.
The point is: There’s a real conversation here among experts who study this stuff for a living. There are social justice and mathematical aspects to all of this. But Blumner ignores that nuance and claims the entire debate, which she says is “extreme,” is identity politics run amok.
If those are the best examples of cancel culture and “identitarianism” she can find, what does that say about her argument?
ON THE OTHER HAND | Curated contrary opinions
Mark Lilla, The End of Identity Liberalism (New York Times)
By claiming identity politics are antithetical to humanism, the head of one of the largest humanist groups in the country is also claiming trans rights and social justice aren’t as important. If Dawkins wants to throw trans people under the bus under the guise of a hypothetical question, then Blumner wants Humanists to just accept that in the name of unity. Anything less, she says, distracts us from coming together “to work arm-in-arm against Christian Nationalism.” (You know what else distracts us from working against Christian nationalism? The most famous atheist in the world helping Christian nationalists demonize trans people.)
This is part of a pattern for Dawkins and the Center for Inquiry. Last November, Dawkins told his millions of Twitter followers to sign a “Declaration on Women’s Sex-based Rights,” a document that effectively aims to deny civil rights to transgender women. The document in question treats trans mothers like they’re taking rights away from real mothers, aims to deprive trans women of the ability to play women’s sports, and hopes to impede the ability of trans children to receive transition-related health care. You would think a leading humanist group would have something to say about that… but, again, the Center for Inquiry was silent.
No one’s asking CFI to change its mission to become a purely social justice and civil rights-oriented organization. But they could at least stop complaining when the rest of us push back against the (often faith-based) attacks on marginalized groups because our version of Humanism demands it even if theirs doesn’t.
Blumner could easily have offered a better path forward. What’s the proper way, in her mind, for people to educate Dawkins? To correct his mistakes? To criticize him? What’s her organization doing to make sure it’s supporting trans people who are vulnerable to Christian nationalist legislation?
We’re not given answers to any of those questions because the essay is more concerned about professional contrarians who apparently have an unlimited right to speak on every college campus no matter what.
After spending an entire essay denouncing the straw man of “Identitarianism,” there’s no suggestion for how Humanists ought to have respectful disagreements when they arise, or any acknowledgment that Dawkins was at least inarticulate (or uninformed) when trying to convey a point. Nor is there any acknowledgment that critics within a movement are often the ones who push everyone in a better direction. (Just ask the Southern Baptists who demanded a strong independent internal investigation into the denomination’s sexual abuse problems!)
For someone who values freedom of speech, Blumner seems shocked that someone she admires could face even mild consequences for saying thoughtless things.