Free Speech and Identity Politics

Robyn E. Blumner

When Richard Dawkins was de-platformed from an event planned in August by a radio station (KPFA) in Berkeley, California, a now well-worn debate was sparked. It had a couple of key components that these dustups always do. The first centered on whether free speech rights were violated, and the second on whether the criticism Dawkins had expressed about the Islamic faith constituted a form of bigotry or hate speech.

In short, no one’s free speech rights were violated, and Dawkins is not a bigot. And, having known Richard Dawkins personally for three years, I know him to be a compassionate humanist and feminist, abidingly fair-minded, caring about others’ feelings, and an egalitarian who is polite even to those who would try one’s patience. The only people he judges unfairly are people who chew gum, whom he thinks should be executed. (Kidding, but only just.)

As to the free-speech claim, only the government and government institutions can violate the First Amendment. The founders were guarding the nation against the dangerous power of the state to censor speech, ideas, and the press. A community-supported radio station is not the government and is not constrained by the First Amendment. It can choose its programming and whether to sponsor or de-sponsor events without implicating the Bill of Rights.

Still, essential Enlightenment values were abandoned by KPFA’s de-platforming decision, such as supporting an open exchange of ideas, not caving into misguided political correctness, and standing up for a renowned promoter of reason and science.

As to the second question, Dawkins is a responsible critic of all religions. To conflate that with bigotry or hate is to fall into the trap set by extremists who want to insulate their virulent form of intolerance by cloaking it in a religious wrapper.

Dawkins’s attacks on Islam are directed toward its tenets and the violent actions people take in its name. He is careful to say that Muslims should enjoy religious-freedom rights and not suffer collective guilt. For instance, Dawkins came out forcefully against the Muslim travel ban instigated by President Donald J. Trump.

But he will not be cowed by the cultural shield religions’ adherents have erected in order to escape scrutiny and reasoned critique. Dawkins validly points out the absurdity of Islamic beliefs and the mortal homophobia and repression of women found in its precepts and in the actions of so many of its radical followers. Dawkins also condemns the backwardness of Catholics’ limits on birth control and abortion and the hypocrisy and money-grubbiness of America’s Prosperity Gospel preachers.

Dawkins doesn’t like religion—any religion. Read The God Delusion, in which Dawkins makes his case with sober eloquence. Why this came as news to KPFA is the only surprise in the entire incident. Oddly, as justification, KPFA pointed to one of Dawkins’s tweets from 2013 that called Islam “the greatest force for evil in the world today.” I say “oddly” because the radio station sponsored a large public event with Dawkins in 2015. Apparently they were fine with the tweet then.

As to the tweet’s substance, KPFA disregarded its full context that Dawkins expounded on at the Cheltenham Literary Festival earlier this year. As reported by the Telegraph on June 11, 2017, this is what he had to say:

If you look at the actual impact that different religions have on the world it’s quite apparent that at present the most evil religion in the world has to be Islam.

It’s terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn’t mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it. Individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else.

They suffer from the homophobia, the misogyny, the joylessness which is preached by extreme Islam, ISIS and the Iranian regime.

So it is a major evil in the world, we do have to combat it, but we don’t do what Trump did and say all Muslims should be shut out of the country. That’s draconian, that’s illiberal, inhumane and wicked. I am against Islam not least because of the unpleasant effects it has on the lives of Muslims.

The sad part of this whole affair is that it divided philosophical allies. It set identity politics above Enlightenment values, as do all these types of debates that largely occur these days on college campuses. This splintering of progressives has us tearing each other down while those who truly represent a danger to our values—people such as Jerry Falwell Jr., Pat Robertson, Betsy DeVos, and Jeff Sessions—whistle on by.

Dawkins attempted to make that very point in a postscript to the KPFA event, when he reached out to the station’s general manager, Quincy McCoy, with this olive branch:

I am in the Bay Area today with some free time, and I just wondered whether you and I (and some of your close colleagues if you wish) might meet to have a civilised conversation. Not on the radio, which completely changes the atmosphere, but in private.

I would seek to persuade you that we are on the same side, the liberal left, and it is sad that we should be at cross purposes. We on the liberal left are natural allies of oppressed victims, but I think you have identified the wrong victims! It is Muslims who are the main victims of Islamic oppression. Especially women and gays, but Muslims in general. And of course apostates who are literally threatened with death simply because they have chosen to leave the religion of their parents. I don’t abuse Muslims, I abuse the Islamic tyranny that abuses Muslims.

Beyond an automated “out of office” response, Dawkins received no reply to this overture.

I admit that my heart broke a little when I saw the results of the recent Brookings poll of college students who have no understanding of the principle of free speech. Forty-four percent of students said the First Amendment does not protect hate speech, with another 16 percent saying they don’t know whether it does. Of course the First Amendment protects hate speech. It protects noxious speech so that the government doesn’t have the power to determine what ideas may be disseminated and what ideas may be censored. That is the very essence of a free society.

But these young people have been told it’s their right to live in a world in which no one ever has to feel insulted, marginalized, or micro-annoyed. It is an infantilization of citizenry when we want the government to enforce a bubble of protection for sensitive ears and psyches. And it is a dangerous ceding of individual power—our power—to the government. The judgment of Trump as to what ideas are hateful might be very different from those you and I would choose. Why would we want to give him, or any government official, the power to decide what can be said or heard?

The same poll had 51 percent of college students agreeing that it’s okay for a group to shout down a speaker it disagrees with so the speaker can no longer be heard. There was a yawning gap between the percentage of Democrats who agreed with this statement, at 62 percent, versus the percentage of Republicans who did, at 38 percent.

I’m guessing this differential represents the real-life examples of right-wing speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter who have had appearances cancelled after violent student protests. If the situation were reversed and Bernie Sanders’s speeches unleashed student outrage, those identifying as Democrats might have had second thoughts about whether it’s okay to shout down a speaker.

Giving your ideological adversary space to make his or her (flawed) case demonstrates maturity, not weakness or assent.

For my fellow liberals—and I realize not everyone reading this is in that category; all, of every political stripe, are welcome in the world of atheism, secularism, and humanism, but this is to my fellow liberals: We have to move beyond identity politics, where we speak through the lens of historical grievances, and start embracing shared civic values as the cornerstone of liberalism.

I recommend The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University. His thesis is that for decades now, identity politics has been shutting liberals out of political power. To win elections again across a wide swath of the country, liberals must appeal to a sense of shared purpose and end this refrain of blame on white males that pits us against one another. Lilla writes:

The paradox of identity liberalism is that it paralyzes the capacity to think and act in a way that would actually accomplish the things it professes to want. It is mesmerized by symbols: achieving superficial diversity in organizations, retelling history to focus on marginal and often minuscule groups, concocting inoffensive euphemisms to describe social reality, protecting young ears and eyes already accustomed to slasher films from any disturbing encounter with alternative viewpoints. …

(Liberals) must offer a vision of our common destiny based on one thing that all Americans, of every background, actually share. And that is citizenship.

This identity liberalism that Lilla describes is the same that has a Berkeley radio station cancelling an event with Richard Dawkins because he has the audacity to worry aloud about Islam’s legitimately repressive tenets. Any liberal who looks at Dawkins as his or her enemy has no idea what a true enemy is. And in our battle for power—electoral power—you are dooming us to defeat, divided and angry, with liberalism’s humane ideas for society’s advancement not even in the game.

Robyn E. Blumner

Robyn E. Blumner is the CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason &, Science. She was a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) for sixteen years.