One hundred and forty characters

One hundred and forty characters

Twitter is a terrible medium for discussing complicated subjects


RICHARD Dawkins has been getting a lot of heat over the past few days (it’s August 10, 2013 as I write), even from people who are normally friends and allies. This time it’s not the tedious, endlessly-recycled complaint about the rudeness of “New Atheism” in being more blunt and outspoken than the old, genteel kind of atheism. This time it’s about his habit of saying things on Twitter that (in the view of critics) border on racism, or if not racism then something very like it.

Richard Dawkins: Reuters

Richard Dawkins: Reuters

One such tweet, from August 7, goes like this:

MUSLIMS GAVE YOU ALCHEMY AND ALGEBRA!!!!! Indeed, where would we be without alchemy? Dark Age achievements undoubted. But since then?

You will notice that “Muslims” doesn’t literally name a race. Dawkins noted that, his fans noted that. I’ve been known to note that myself in the past. But it’s not always a useful or relevant reply, and I don’t think it is useful in this instance. Those four sentences are crude and sneery, and the group they pick out really is an outgroup in the world where Dawkins is influential. He is, as the saying goes, punching down: he’s not an underdog telling truth to power, but an overdog jabbing at people with no power.

But it’s Twitter! Of course what he said is crude, because it’s on Twitter. Well yes, but that’s why he shouldn’t try to discuss things like that on Twitter. Twitter is a terrible medium for discussing complicated subjects. It’s good for gossip and chat and jokes, among other things, but it’s not a good place to make a complicated point that, if made clumsily, becomes a mere insult.

The funny thing is, Dawkins later wrote a post for his website, responding to the criticism, in which he acknowledged the difficulty of making an argument on Twitter – but apparently without drawing the conclusion that therefore he should stop trying.

You have surely heard something like the following two statements, often uttered with a measure of truculence:

1. “There are 1.6 billion Muslims, nearly a quarter of the world’s population, and we are growing fast.” There is even, sometimes, a hint of menace added. In the words of Houari Boumediene, President of Algeria, “Le ventre de nos femmes nous donnera la victoire” (the belly of our women will give us the victory).

2. “Islamic science deserves enormous respect.” There are two versions of this second claim, ranging from the pathetic desperation of “the Qu’ran anticipated modern science” (the embryo develops from a blob, mountains have roots that hold the earth in place, salt and fresh water don’t mix) to what is arguably quite a good historical point: “Muslim scholars kept the flame of Greek learning alight while Christendom wallowed in the Dark Ages.”

Twitter’s 140 character limit always presents a tough challenge, but I tried to rise to it.

Wrong move. Don’t try to rise to it. The problem is already apparent: there isn’t room on Twitter to give the context that he gave in those first two paragraphs. Without the context, the tweet just looks like a gratuitous sneer. (It doesn’t look much better with the context, but one can at least see what it was about.)

The next day, apparently (but who knows?) still thinking about his critics, he tweeted a new thought:

Interesting concept: a simple statement of undeniable FACT can be offensive. Other examples where facts should be hidden because offensive?

Oh lord. It’s really not difficult to think of examples of undeniable fact that it would be highly offensive to say. Has Dawkins never “hidden” undeniable facts about people he’s talking to for the sake of not being offensive? One certainly hopes he has. But perhaps he hasn’t.

There was the time he said about Nadia Eweida, the British Airways worker who wanted to wear a cross on the job:

I saw a picture of this woman. She had one of the most stupid faces I’ve ever seen.

The ghastly Nadia Eweida, in yet another picture of her displaying her loathsome cross

The ghastly Nadia Eweida, in yet another picture of her displaying her loathsome cross

He apologized for saying it, I think, but that he allowed himself to say it in the first place seems to shed light on his proclivity for composing insults on Twitter
now. Twitter is a terrible medium for subtle arguments, but an ideal one for brisk insults. Perhaps that’s why he likes it.

I blame Stephen Fry for the mockery of the claim that a statement of fact can be offensive, or rather, I blame some of Fry’s stupider fans. Fry said “So you’re offended, so fucking what?” in a good cause, for a good reason. I do not believe he meant that to apply to taunts or mockery of all kinds in all circumstances.

It’s a funny thing – I used to spend a lot of time arguing against complaints about “New Atheism” but I feel much less inclined to do that now. I still think atheists should be unapologetic and outspoken, but that doesn’t mean I think they should take up recreational rudeness as a hobby. I’m very tired of Internet rudeness, not to mention Internet harassment and abuse, so I find myself less and less inclined to defend “provocative” tweets that are really more insulting than

People who make a big fuss of self-identifying as skeptics can sometimes end up being callous belligerent shits, who apply their “skepticism” to other people’s emotions and sensitivities. They need to get over that.

Freethinker, September 2013

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