One of the most painful lessons I’ve learned over the past several months is that there are no heroes. There is always — always — some measure, small or large, of disappointment hiding behind all the awesome things that drew you to idolize one person or another.
Of course, while I always thought of Dawkins as a science popularizer and atheist first, and a humanist dead last, I figured this latest Great Sorting of the skeptical and atheist communities into those that are down with social justice causes and those that would rather entrench themselves in privilege would pretty much end exactly this way. The hyper-privileged folks nearest the top of our movement have pretty uniformly fallen on one side of this divide — the side that would rather not skeptically examine ideas like social conventions, consent, harassment policies and protecting the underprivileged.
So it’s absolutely no surprise to me that Dawkins has, again, sided against Skepchick — this time, instead of writing a “Dear Muslima” comment at Rebecca Watson (telling her that the sexism she encounters isn’t nearly as bad as female genital mutilation, so she should grow up or get a thicker skin), he’s stabbing at Skepchick the organization for a) being on board with the idea of harassment policies, and b) for having written a post last year offering free vaccinations with hugs as your reward.
(How heartwarming is this Skepchick open invitation to “HUG ME at TAM”! http://tinyurl.com/6za5gxa . Spontaneous! Carefree! Rule-free! Delightful!)
He was asked to clarify by probably dozens of people — and dozens of people heaped derision at his “timely” reply to the issue in order to smear Skepchick’s credibility as hypocrites, even if it would damage the vaccination campaign in the process. He “clarified”:
(I VERY strongly support the vaccine campaign. And I support spontaneous hugs governed by ordinary unwritten rules of politeness. Problem?)
The funny thing is, it doesn’t take a particularly sharp mind to be able to square that circle — first, put aside your predisposition that suddenly Skepchick is all about sex-negativity, or about requiring consent via consent forms written in triplicate, or any other antifeminist trope you’ve heard about them. Skepchick is very much a sex-positive organization. They are also very pro-consent. It is not difficult to be both — if you foster one, you pretty much must foster the other, because if you don’t, people will be almost invariably hurt.
He walked some of this back, because people got the wrong impression of what he was saying. Some people thought he does not support the efforts to increase herd immunity. So he said the following:
(Please support http://hugmeimvaccinated.org . Epidemics are nonlinearly favoured if vax nos fall below a threshold. Spread the meme not the disease )
This was a good, strong message, and in isolation, absolutely correct. It’s just a shame that he decided to — now, suddenly, shortly before TAM 10, and using what he thinks is a gotcha moment from a blog post in 2011 — take this stab at Skepchick.
It is an emotive argument about the morality of expecting consent before actions are taken involving other people, and one predicated on paper-thin evidence. It is so far beneath Dawkins that it serves only to undercut his image as a rationalist in my eyes — not that I was any longer under any delusion that he is a pure rationalist. It is similar in scope and in vector to his last stab at a Skepchick, in suggesting that these unwritten rules are all it takes to prevent people from doing nasty things, and that anything that DOES happen must be dealt with via the panacea of a “thicker skin”.
Offering free, spontaneous hugs to people is perfectly fine. There was a very strong harassment policy at CONvergence, and a sur-policy for the FtB and Skepchick party rooms at the convention, and I got more hugs there than anywhere else at the entire convention. Every one of them was enthusiastically consented-to as far as I can tell, and if anyone was being significantly put-upon, they would have had every right and every recourse to ameliorate that situation.
Offering hugs as a reward for vaccination is a nice idea, but at the same time, it’s well within the rights of the person who gets a vaccine to forgo the hug. And in fact, some people are even bothered by the very offer of a hug, so those people must needs make that apparent before they partake in the free vaccination services offered, because the whole event is predicated on something that might be to them a trigger, if not a simple preference.
And setting the expectation that hugs are pre-consented (and in a limited fashion — the post he linked to says one hug per vaccination!) is absolutely not an undercutting of the idea that one needs to obtain consent before performing an action. The thing about consent is that it is often negotiated by the neurotypical without verbalizing or formalizing. One can offer a hug by opening one’s arms, and letting the other person approach if they choose. Neuro-atypical folks can explicitly request verbal consent if they are unskilled at those practices, as well. Even asking or motioning, though, crosses some people’s comfort barriers, so setting the expectation — verbally, via that blog post and via the title of the campaign — that hugs are on the table explicitly, and in advance, actually does people like that a huge service.
To be clear, and frank, I am seriously disheartened that Richard Dawkins feels the need to take swipes at Skepchick over concerns that completely buy into the least charitable framings of the issues at hand. I honestly thought that Dawkins would be more intellectually curious and rigorous than to conflate a demand for consent in the form of harassment policies, with sex-negativity in the form of deriding “spontaneity” and lionizing “unwritten rules”, the way he has in this instance. It’s terribly unskeptical, and it exposes a very large blind spot in an otherwise intelligent and rational actor.
I know there are no heroes. I just wish some of the people that I want to look up to, could stop proudly displaying the unheroic bits like so many peacock feathers.