Free speech issues: NECSS disinvites Dawkins; Gareth Cliff update

My title is intentionally misleading, as there are aspects of both the cases mentioned therein that are not a free speech issue at all.

As I pointed out in my previous post on the Gareth Cliff saga, M-Net are, to my mind, perfectly entitled to promote a certain brand image, and this entitlement is compatible with saying that Cliff doesn’t fit that image, and that they are therefore not renewing his contract.

As the judge pointed out in her ruling yesterday that called for his reinstatement, though, it’s partly because he is a controversial figure that they hired him in the first place.

If they’ve changed their minds about wanting him on the channel, fine, but then they need to a) follow due process in terminating his employ (rather than violating a pre-existing verbal agreement to renew him) and b) not use the (to my mind, not legally sustainable) pretext of his tweet defending a certain perspective on free speech as the reason for terminating his employ.

On Dawkins, for those of you who don’t know: he tweeted a YouTube video which compared Islamists to feminists, noting in the same tweet that he wasn’t saying all feminists were like this, including feminists like himself.

The YouTube video also contains “humour” related to “spastics”, alongside some other rather gross caricaturing. (If you want to watch it, go here.) I think the video is in very poor taste, and that someone with the reach and influence of Dawkins shouldn’t tweet such things.

He’s deleted the tweet, after the feminist who is caricatured in that video started receiving threats from some of Dawkins’ Twitter followers. This was predictable, in that we know how Twitter echo-chambers work to reinforce tribal divisions.

Dawkins is smart enough and experienced enough to know this also, and even though he’s not directly to blame for what his followers do, my position as a Humanist is that we do have a moral obligation to avoid entirely foreseeable negative consequences of our actions, where doing so won’t cost us significant positive value.

NECSS is one of the headline skeptic conferences, and Dawkins was to be a keynote speaker this year. They’ve dis-invited him following the tweet in question. Here’s their statement, and here’s his response to that statement. (Here’s a more detailed timeline of events.)

This is not a “no platforming”, in that NECSS did not (in my estimation, of course) bow to a baying mob in disinviting him, but rather made a decision based on the values they seek to promote.

You can agree or disagree with those values, as well as the extent to which having Dawkins speak would undermine them – if at all – but Dawkins has no right to speak there, and his free speech is not at all compromised by disinviting him.

He has as much opportunity to express his views as pretty much anyone on the planet, which is kind of why some of us wish that he’d stop using those opportunities to reinforce the attitudes of some of the most obnoxious among our (atheists) number that can’t seem to stop lumping people into uncritical categories like “feminist”, “Muslim” and so forth.

Finally, in a amusing irony, I’m due to give a talk on 2 February regarding how medical professionals should use social media. My invitation was no doubt prompted by the Noakes hearings, so it was with bemusement that I received two communications asking me not to talk about Noakes or the hearings at all, prompted by an email of concern that the host Faculty had received.

I responded to say that I’d either talk about what I liked, or not at all, but that I’m not in the habit of defaming people in any case, so I don’t understand the concern. The person who expressed the initial concern is in any case misguided, as I think – and have said – that Noakes should “win” these hearings.

I’m pleased to say the talk is going ahead, and I’ll post a version of it sometime next week for those of you who are interested in the topic.

[Edit]Here’s David Futrelle making a case for what the problem was with what Dawkins tweeted, as well as his subsequent responses.[/edit]

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.