Saturday, September 7, 2013

Don't meet your heroes

The more I learn about some of the Big Names in Big Skepticism, the less I like them. Much like this post last month, where I detailed the darker side of some Big Name Skeptics becoming increasingly visible, now Richard Dawkins is taking a serious tumble in my estimation -- not for anything as bad as sexual harassment or assault, mind you, but rather for showing himself to be a privileged, prickish diva.

Sarah Moglia detailed on Skepchick her time as one of the people planning Dawkins' tour for his children's book "The Magic of Reality". According to Moglia, Dawkins threw something of a hissy fit when he learned that another Skepchick, Rebecca Watson, was on the list of speakers for the Reason Rally and threatened to withdraw from the event. American Atheists president Dave Silverman assured Dawkins that Watson would be removed from the roster, placating the celebrity evolutionary biologist. Why would someone with Dawkins' credentials and track record have it out for a podcaster/blogger/activist whose primary visibility is within the skeptical movement? Apparently Dawkins still holds a grudge after Watson called him out for deriding her attempt to call attention to the misogyny and double standards women face in the skeptical movement (not to mention society at large), insinuating that Western women have no right to complain since women elsewhere in the world have it worse.

Moglia rightly sniffs out the scent of celebrity culture in the whole affair:
I think it says a lot about the atheist movement, that a famous speaker can use his position in order to keep someone else off the lineup, and the movement willingly obliges. I’m truly not trying to blame Dave Silverman (I’ve spent a lot of time with him and I generally think he’s a good guy). I think the head of every single organization would have done the same thing, had they been in Dave’s position– and that right there is the problem. Yes, Richard Dawkins is a big draw. Yes, the Reason Rally was (for the most part) successful. But at what cost? Are we okay sacrificing the voices of some people in order to get others involved? Do we have too much of a culture of celebrity, so that we are willing to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do in order to get those celebrities involved? Is this indicative of a mindset that some people’s opinions are more important than others?
This sparked yet another round of self-examination among skeptics, or at least those willing to look beyond the Dawkins brand. Greta Christina summed it up artfully (as she always does) on her blog in a post with the leave-no-doubt headline "On Being Disillusioned By Heroes… or, No, I Am Not Bloody Well Happy to Hear Horrible Things About the People I Admired". The headline alone makes the post worth a read.

Again I find myself asking, "now what?" Honestly, I am disappointed to find out Dawkins behaves in such a manner, but is that enough for me to bail on skepticism? Far from it. I don't have to like the leading lights in Big Skepticism to find value in applying rationalism and critical thinking in my own life. Much as with Christopher Hitchens, I can respect Dawkins' intellect and passion while still finding his other beliefs or behavior odious. In other words, my attitude toward Dawkins from his point forward will be much like Watson's:
That’s where you come in. You, dear reader, have been incredible. You posted in response to Dawkins on the Pharyngula thread, bravely battling both him and the hoards of clueless privileged people who didn’t get it. You emailed me to tell me to keep talking. You introduced yourself at SkepchickCon and told me how much you loved Skepchick and SGU. You wrote blog posts and made videos and were kick ass, and you made me realize that Dawkins is not the present. He is the past.
So many of you voiced what I had already been thinking: that this person who I always admired for his intelligence and compassion does not care about my experiences as an atheist woman and therefore will no longer be rewarded with my money, my praise, or my attention. I will no longer recommend his books to others, buy them as presents, or buy them for my own library. I will not attend his lectures or recommend that others do the same. There are so many great scientists and thinkers out there that I don’t think my reading list will suffer.
Despite the fact that I’ve seen hundreds of comments from those of you who plan to do the same, I’m sure Dawkins will continue to be stinking rich until the end of his days. But those of us who are humanists and feminists will find new, better voices to promote and inspire, and Dawkins will be left alone to fight the terrible injustice of standing in elevators with gum-chewers.
As for the whole "heroes" thing, to be honest I've never really been that big on having them in the first place. To be sure, I have people whom I like, respect and would love to emulate, but calling someone a "hero" suggests the kind of idolatry and putting people on a pedestal that can only end badly. I leave it to PZ Myers to give this idea the send-off it deserves:
We don’t need them. Ever.
I don’t need “heroes” to get my work done. I need colleagues and friends and peers and collaborators and partners. I need people to lead on some projects, and I need to lead on others. I need specialists and I need workers and I need assistants. I mostly need teamwork and a community of equals.
Think about every last job you’ve accomplished. The last damn thing you needed was a shiny nickel-plated figurehead striking a noble pose and freakin’ inspiring you. And I can’t think of anything more useless than getting placed up on a pedestal.

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