Dawkins, Muslims and trolling on Twitter

I had intended to write a post on Richard Dawkins’ most recent provocations on Twitter, which he kicked off with

RDbut a couple of people have gotten there before me – particularly Nelson Jones, who seems to have read my mind. As Jones points out, Trinity College has more Nobels than the Chinese, or than women, or any number of groups you might care to name (regardless of how carefully or accurately those groups were defined).

Yes, what he said was “a fact”, and in fact true. On Twitter, a few people have reminded me of this when I accused Dawkins of dickishness in the Tweet embedded above. I know that it’s a fact – but there are two ways of making the point that this isn’t the only relevant thing in this case. The one way is to say that facts aren’t all that matter – that there is a world of politics, and emotion, and strategy that might mean it’s sensible to point out certain facts at certain times, in certain contexts.

The other way of making the point is to agree that facts are all that matter, and to say that therefore, Dawkins should be wary of letting utterly predictable reactions get in the way of people seeing the facts that he’s attempting to highlight. As Jones writes, something in Islam (and this could easily be true for any other religion too) has gotten in the way of there being proportional representation of Muslims amongst Nobel Prize winners (and a number of other equally arbitrary metrics).

What that something is, is an interesting question – as is the question of whether atheists are disproportionately well-represented. But you can ask that question in less or more abrasive ways, and asking them in the way that Dawkins did will almost certainly result in making fewer, not more, people think about what the answer might be.

I’m not making the claim that it’s always wrong to ask questions abrasively – I’m making the claim that it’s disingenuous to say “I’m simply pointing out a fact”, or “everyone is over-reacting” when you have various options for how to express something, and you choose the one which a) doesn’t do any better a job of making the point and b) is likely to provoke more than alternatives would.

Twitter is not the place for nuanced debate. We (in general) broadcast, entertain, and often provoke. Dawkins is doing all of those, and he surely knows it. I don’t object, as I’ve said many times – it’s not a strategy that I want to employ for myself, but we need people to act as the lightning-rods. But that doesn’t mean it’s impermissible to ever say hold on, even on your strategy, that message is going to be lost in the quite predictable outrage. If people aren’t listening, you can’t do anything to budge their beliefs.

Read the Jones piece, as well as this one by Nesrine Malik. As Jones rightly points out, this is a pattern for Dawkins, and even (especially?) those of us who support his goals should be able to see how characteristic it is:

Dawkins’ well-honed technique (it often amounts to trolling) is to say something pointlessly provocative, wait for the inevitable backlash (the traditional response, playing on his well-known love of grammar, is “Your a dick”) and then express innocent bafflement that anyone could possibly object.

Another example from earlier this year compelled me to respond, because it seemed to indicate quite plainly how Dawkins’ Twitter behaviour is often more about provoking, than facilitating debate:

In case it’s not clear to you what’s going on there, Continental and Analytic (to use the traditional, and contested, definitions) are different approaches to academic philosophy. It’s a summary term of a style of philosophy practiced in those regions, like (as my tweet highlighted) French vs. Greek food. These are both different routes to getting fed, and the styles of philosophy are similarly both routes to understanding the world. There is no necessary distinction between them, though – and therefore, nothing to deride by asking “what sort of a search for truth is region-specific?”

But absurdly, social media are so intemperate that we only seem to have two options in response to Tweets like the one that the post begins with: either to denounce Dawkins as an Islamophobe, or to support him vociferously, telling anyone who criticises him that what he says “is a fact” and that everyone is “over-reacting”. The middle-ground is, as ever, squeezed out of the picture – because on social media, we’re all shouting, all the time.

And I suppose it’s quite reasonable to worry about who might hear you, if you’re saying something like “hold on, it’s not that simple”?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.