Dawkins Goes Denialist: An Open Letter to the CFI Board

Let me start this by offering my sympathy. You have what was probably a tough decision just behind you. You have another ahead. You haven’t had much time to be comfortable that you made the right decision in between. You have no options that will please everyone or even any options that will not sadden and anger many people.

That said, I’m writing this to make sure you understand the full import of what’s ahead of you. When someone like Richard Dawkins conjures up a new storm on the internet every week or two, it’s easy to slip into the habit of thinking they’re all the same and they’ll all blow over. That isn’t the case here.

What Dawkins has done over the course of the last couple of days has ramifications for CFI that need to be considered carefully. I don’t want you to miss them.

This started with Dawkins sharing a video on Twitter that had been posted by a notorious Gamergate harasser, Sargon of Akkad, and which featured a caricature of another feminist (Chanty Binx) who has been subject to years of harassment. To the best of my knowledge, before Tuesday, Sargon of Akkad hadn’t been targeting women in atheism generally. The exception to that is Rebecca Watson, because Dawkins’ actions of four and half years ago turned her into one of the targets that internet antifeminists use to try to prove that they’re serious (or whatever it is that they’re attempting to do).

You can see documentation of tweeting the video here, along with the discussion with CFI-conference-speaker Lindy West that prompted Dawkins to remove it. It’s a fairly thorough record of the exchange up to the point it stops, but it’s worthwhile to add the missing deleted tweet. You can see a screen capture of the tweet in Rebecca’s post, and the video itself is here. It is simply footage of Binx upset while protesting an event by “men’s rights” group CAFE. You can read more about CAFE, started by former CFI Canada director Justin Trottier, here.

As you know by now, the original tweet from Dawkins, sharing the video that claimed feminists don’t believe it’s rape if it’s perpetrated by a Muslim, was enough to convince NECSS to rescind its invitation to Dawkins to speak this year. It may have been enough to make some of you grateful for the part of your FAQ that says Dawkins only speaks for himself unless he’s speaking through CFI.

What Dawkins did after deleting his tweets, however, makes that FAQ inadequate and irrelevant to the current situation.

Before I get into why, I should note that the FAQ was inadequate for practical purposes before this. On the day the merger was announced, I saw a number of ways it negatively impacted CFI. A friend who is an up-and-coming science-communication star contacted me to let me know that she was dropping out of this year’s Women in Secularism conference. I watched a CFI community director hear from a member for whom this was the final straw. The organizer of another CFI community decided this was their final straw. Members and donors said they were done.

The members and donors you’ll have to find out about as the attrition happens, but the rest of that is easily verified by talking to your staff, paid and volunteer. If you’re not doing that already, you might want to. Your people haven’t been particularly shy about their opinions on this.

But that’s a political consideration, a calculation you may have already made. I mention it only because you may not know. My main concern is with the governance issues that Dawkins raised by embracing denialism of harassment.

Denialism is a strong word, but it’s justified here. You can watch the process through his tweets and retweets. He started from the idea that there were people who would lie as though the idea were new.

Retweeted someone claiming Hitchens had identified the tactic. (As far as I can find, he hadn’t. He did talk about threats themselves as blackmail, however.)

Allowed his personal incredulity to come into play.

Decided the world made more sense if the idea applied in this situation in which he’d been criticized.

Then he decided it was probable in this case.

Retweeted someone asking for proof of the threats, which West had tweeted at Dawkins, asked whether he’d read, then tweeted at him again after discovering he hadn’t.

Accepted at face value the claim that the source of the documentation was a known liar.

Asked for evidence that this was the case.

At least with those last two tweets, we now have documentation of the ad hominem fallacy in the wild that we can show the many, many people confused about what it is. Even if Futrelle had a history of falsifying evidence (he doesn’t, though I have occasionally disagreed with him on his interpretations, as I do with most people), we don’t have to take Futrelle’s word for any of this.

We can look at the post documenting the threats, the same post Dawkins was provided twice and whose author he is investigating. It is full of links and screen captures, and we can follow those links to verify the information in the post. I’ve done it. It was ugly, but what I found matches the descriptions in the post. The only part of it I was unable to verify were the specific YouTube comments pictured, as there were too many to reasonably scroll through, but I had no trouble finding suggestions on the video that Binx should be curb-stomped and gagged with male genitalia, bitch slapped, and other vivid suggestions.

The threats are right there, exactly where Dawkins was told they are. Dawkins is substituting his intuitions and other people’s insinuations for the facts instead of checking them. This is denialism.

More than that, it is denialism that is now present on the CFI website.

I might mention that, before receiving any word from NECSS, I had already deleted the tweet to which they objected. I did it purely because I was told that the video referenced a real woman, who had been threatened on earlier occasions because of YouTube videos in which she appeared to her disadvantage. I have no knowledge of the authenticity of the alleged death and rape threats.

This information has, in fact, been given to Dawkins. He is simply not engaging with it in favor of the narrative that the threats are false and being used to deflect criticism. He’s doing this in CFI’s name.

This is a problem for your organization. It is directly contrary to your mission, but that’s not the worst part.

CFI now has a harassment denialist on its board, a harassment denialist who has tied his denialism to his work at your organization. And being who he is, given the reach he has, everyone now knows this. That means you’re looking at questions like this:

Assume that one of the CFI staff or volunteers reports being harassed or assaulted by a prominent speaker. It’s happened before. Unfortunately, it will probably happen again. An investigation is conducted, but no action is taken. The person who reported being harassed or assaulted isn’t satisfied with the outcome and speaks about the matter publicly.

Who will trust that the outcome is just and that the decided course of action matched the facts of the case? Who will trust that they can report and have their situation decided on the facts?

Assume that a speaker at an upcoming conference reports threats against them by an attendee? It’s happened before. Unfortunately, it will probably happen again. The speaker provides documentation of the threats, but the decision is made to allow the person in question to attend. The speaker isn’t satisfied with the outcome and speaks about the matter publicly.

Who will trust that the decision was made based on the documentation? Who will trust that they can report a similar situation and have it decided on the facts?

I realize that decisions like these are often not made at the board level. However, when we’re talking about undermining trust in an organization, often isn’t enough. Will CFI be willing to provide an unprecedented level of transparency into decisions like this going forward? Will it take the hit to its credibility as the cost of doing business with a celebrity? Or will it simply hope that situations like these won’t come up the way it hoped Dawkins wouldn’t say anything like he just did?

Good luck figuring out what to do going forward. As I said at the start of this post, you have my sympathy.

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Dawkins Goes Denialist: An Open Letter to the CFI Board

13 thoughts on “Dawkins Goes Denialist: An Open Letter to the CFI Board

  1. 2

    It’s *almost* hilarious, or is vile and horrifying, that Dawkins just retweeted Janet Bloomfield’s oleaginous defense of him. Over a year ago when she was “social media director” for A Voice for Men, Bloomfield was caught making up fake quotes in order to make feminist writer Jessica Valenti look bad, and then bragging about it on her blog, Yet, Dawkins remains single-mindedly convinced that it’s the feminists who are the lying liars who lie.

    Dawkins has revealed his character. At this point, CFI would have to undo the merger, as a first step, if they wanted me to believe that they are not the anti-feminist, pro-harassment organization that they have revealed themselves to be these past few years. I don’t see that happening, so, like, bye.

  2. 5

    I see you are ethically hewing to the principle of assuming good faith* in the people you are addressing, despite ample evidence it isn’t warranted. You’re cool like that, but I’m glad that as a nobody in the community I don’t have to be. The Center For Icky can kiss my booty.

    *not saying i think you believe it, just that you’re doing it for political & ethical purposes. i know you’re no fool.

  3. 10

    kellym #2:

    Dawkins sees himself as being beseiged by hostile forces right now, so he will grab any rock and hurl it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Thunderf00t or the Amazing Atheist got a run by the time this is over.
    —————————————————————
    I’ve had enough of Dawkins and his twitter garbage. The sooner someone dumps his iPhone in the Thames the better.

  4. 11

    Come up with phrases like “harassment denialist” in order to shut people down, gag them, exclude then and you pretty much rule yourself out as someone worth listening to.

  5. 12

    Nice try on the ad hominem, Frank, but I think Dawkins has you beat. He at least used a reason (lying) that would throw someone’s credibility into question, even though it wouldn’t change the facts of the matter. Your example–naming the problem–is pretty weak sauce by comparison.

  6. 13

    Come up with phrases like “harassment denialist” in order to shut people down, gag them, exclude then and you pretty much rule yourself out as someone worth listening to.

    It’s quite revealing, isn’t it?
    Stephanie writes a long letter, detailing her concerns, sourcing them carefully with many examples, and then Frank Miller shows up, claiming that certain terms “shut down discussion” and therefore the discussion is over. The irony is lost forever.

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