Working in an office one day, a conversation was taking place down the corridor. A sharp difference of opinion was under discussion in which various people were advancing various viewpoints. One of the participants left the conversation and walked up the corridor towards my desk. Overhearing a bit more of the discussion behind him, he turned around and shouted clearly: ‘Yeah, but he’s such a poof!’
I was rather shocked at the outburst. Prior to it, the conversation had been heated but on point. This random homophobia came entirely out of left field and was entirely out of place. How did the conversation get to this point? How did this person think it was appropriate to make that comment? What the hell is wrong with this person that they’d think this was an appropriate thing to say?
It would be a while before I was this thrown by out of place prejudice again (yay, privilege). Fortunately, Richard Dawkins was on call to provide such an experience over Twitter. This time, it was his weird and entirely unprovoked declaration that hatred towards Muslims isn’t racist.
To be fair to Dawkins, we should outline the context of his random statement. He had heard the claim that Islam deserves some credit for its scientific achievements, usually in response to his claims that, for example:
Such a conspicuous failure…
He decided to point out how few Nobel Prizes had been awarded to Muslims:
There’s a sort of logic to this. If Muslim culture is so great at creating scientists, why haven’t many Muslims won Nobel Prizes? After receiving copious amounts of abuse, he went to his blog to explain:
Putting these two claims together, you almost can’t help wondering something like this: “If you are so numerous, and if your science is so great, shouldn’t you be able to point to some pretty spectacular achievements emanating from among those vast numbers? If you can’t today but once could, what has gone wrong for the past 500 years? Whatever it is, is there something to be done about it?” [Source]
He follows it up with this:
I thought about comparing the numbers of Nobel Prizes won by Jews (more than 120) and Muslims (ten if you count Peace Prizes, half that if you don’t). This astonishing discrepancy is rendered the more dramatic when you consider the small size of the world’s Jewish population. However, I decided against tweeting that comparison because it might seem unduly provocative (many Muslim “community leaders” are quite outspoken in their hatred of Jews) and I sought a more neutral comparison as more suitable to the potentially inflammable medium of Twitter. It is a remarkable fact that one Cambridge college, Trinity, has 32 Nobel Prizes to its credit. That’s three times as many as the entire Muslim world even if you count Peace Prizes, six times as many if you don’t. [Source: Ibid.]
First, it’s difficult to know precisely what Dawkins is trying to refute. Who is this mysterious ‘you’ in his questions? The group of people known as ‘Muslims’ who have a wide variety of different cultures, customs, and economic circumstances? Or is the ‘you’ Islam as a sort of personified idea? If Muslims as a massive group are so great at science, why don’t they have Nobel Prizes in science? If Islam is such a science-friendly religion, where are its Nobel Prizes?
You can’t pin down Dawkins firmly on what his question is. This could be an excellent time to talk about why many Muslim countries are in the position that they are today. It certainly doesn’t make for pleasant reading knowing the level of, say, British interference in other countries while simultaneously comparing the number of Nobel Prizes we’ve won. Part of his question-cluster is self-defeating: if the point is to say that Islam is scientifically backwards, why was it a powerhouse of learning and culture 500 years ago? Doesn’t this show us that Islam isn’t an anti-intellectual religion intolerant of learning and research?
Is it even the correct measure? I have a few Indigenous friends and I follow some proudly Indigenous people on Twitter. They are — rightly and correctly — proud of their culture. It would be somewhat ignorant of me to say: ‘Sure, you’re proud of your culture but the objective measure — the number of Nobel Prizes won — says that your culture is actually rubbish.’
A stereotypical Greek trait is pride in their culture. They — rightly and correctly — see themselves as the inheritors of a noble and inquisitive culture. Number of Nobel Prizes for science? Zero.
Finally, we come to the whities. Clearly our culture is the best because we’ve won practically all of the Nobel Prizes.
In summary, it looks an awful lot like the Nobel Prizes in Science tend to go to the countries that can afford to have research laboratories. Access to the academic community was also restricted — despite being centres of learning and research, there aren’t too many Asian Nobel Prizes until much later in the piece. Why? Because Chinese and Japanese scholars weren’t part of the English/French/German scientific circle. By looking at the number of Nobel Prizes awarded to Muslims, Asians, and Indigenous Australians, we are not saying anything about the content of those cultures beyond their access to English/French/German cultures.
Dawkins refused to entertain any of these ideas. Instead, a few people responded to him with the accusation that his comments were racist. This is when he decided to throw the spanner:
He again elaborated on his blog:
You’re a racist (actually usually written as “Your a racist”)
If you think Islam is a race, you are a racist yourself. The concept of race is controversial in biology, for complicated reasons. I could go into that, but I don’t need to here. It’s enough to say that if you can convert to something (or convert or apostatize out of it) it is not a race. If you are going to accuse me of racism, you’ll have to do a lot better than that. Islam is a religion and you can choose to leave it or join it. [Source]
It’s hard to understand what he means by ‘If you think Islam is a race, you are a racist yourself’. What is easier to understand is the jump in Dawkins’ logic from ‘You are a racist’ to ‘Islam is a race’. It comes down to a deceptive intuition: ‘In order to be racist against X, X must be a race.’ We can show with absolute certainty why that’s incorrect.
Dawkins provides a bit more of his reasoning on this point later in his blog:
Race is not a biological concept at all but a socially constructed one. In the sociological sense you can convert to a race because race is a social construction.
There may be sociologists who choose to redefine words to their own purpose, in which case we have a simple semantic disagreement. I have a right to choose to interpret “race” (and hence “racism”) according to the dictionary definition: “A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor”. Sociologists are entitled to redefine words in technical senses that they find useful, but they are not entitled to impose their new definitions on those of us who prefer common or dictionary usage. You can define naked mole rats as termites if you wish (they have similar social systems) but don’t blame the rest of us if we prefer to call them mammals because they are close genetic cousins to non-social mole rats and other rodents. [Source: Ibid.]
And this is where we can see how wonky Dawkins’ reasoning is. A semi-mythical group of sociologists want to ‘redefine’ race, thinks Dawkins, but wouldn’t it be stupid if sociologists also wanted to redefine ‘species’?
Where we can understand (to a certain extent) the biological difference between species, we can’t do the same with race. If my mother is white and my father is black, what race am I? Is white a race? Is black a race?
We can’t make an analogous question with regard to species. If my mother is a naked mole rat and my father is a termite, I don’t exist. There’s a bit of grey here, of course, because there is an extent to which ‘species’ is socially understood (I have a wonderful story about a biologist who wanted to more rigidly define the term ‘species’ but kept finding exceptions. Biology managed to evade human language).
Dawkins has a crack at defining ‘race’: ‘A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor.’ My brothers and I are a limited group of people descended from a common ancestor. Does that make my brothers and I a separate race? That would be absurd and an affront to commonsense. Let’s go to the other extreme. Is ‘Japanese’ a race? We might not know. At times, we thought that the Japanese were all descended from the same group: the Jomon. Now, we suspect that there were various waves of immigration to Japan. So if I start making all kinds of prejudicial assertions about Japanese people, am I being racist? Our commonsense intuition suggests that I am, but we aren’t entirely sure about the common ancestor. Or perhaps I’ve cast the net too narrow, and Japanese isn’t a race, but Asian is the race. I can say what I like about the Japanese (not a race, therefore I’m not racist) but if I extend my prejudice to all Asians, then I’m being racist. Do all Asians have a common ancestor? Probably far enough back. Maybe.
What about in situations where I’m fairly sure that there’s a limited ancestor? Take, for example, Jews. Oh, wait. Dawkins beat us there:
[T]he Jews are not a race. You can argue about whether Judaism is a religion or a cultural tradition, but whatever else it is it is not a race. [Source: Ibid.]
Wait… But they are a limited group of people from a common ancestor! Why don’t they fit Dawkins’ definition?
The ground of the word ‘race’ doesn’t refer to anything biological. We might pretend that it does: all Africans have dark skin, for example. But what counts as ‘dark skin’? Africans have an astonishing range of skin colours, yet we are trying to clump them all together as a ‘race’. Jews all have that nose — you know the one I mean. Except, of course, for the ones who don’t. But you know what a Jew looks like, yeah? The Irish used to be considered a race unto themselves. Germans, similarly. It’s not like the difference between a mole rat and a termite. It’s like the difference between breeds.
But Dawkins feels that he has a ‘right to choose to interpret “race” […] according to the dictionary definition’. We can sort of imagine him as Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, with words meaning whatever he chooses them to mean. According to the dictionary — as some homophobic champions of ‘traditional’ marriage attest — ‘marriage’ is defined as the union of a man and a woman. The dictionary is an unassailable entity, created pure and perfect in its matching of a word to its only correct meaning.
‘I’m not a racist!’ shouts Dawkins, ‘I merely choose to define the word “racist” so that it doesn’t apply to me!’
What if Dawkins had chosen a different definition? Could he construct an understanding of ‘racist’ such that a commitment to ‘race’ doesn’t exist?
Dawkins could have instead used the definition provided in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (‘CERD’):
In this Convention, the term ” racial discrimination ” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life. [Source: Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Art. 1.1]
CERD deliberately avoids creating a necessary commitment to a thing called ‘race’. ‘National’ or ‘Ethnic’ origin provide anchors by which we can understand ‘racial discrimination’. Thus, if I try to ridicule a group of Uzbekistanis to the extent that it interferes with their enjoyment of fundamental freedoms in social life, those Uzbeks do not need to prove that ‘Uzbek’ is a race, just that my attack was based on their national origin.
Indeed, we have cases where this was taken to its logical conclusion. Yilmaz-Dogan v. the Netherlands [CERD/C/36/D/1/1984]. Ms Yilmaz-Dogan had her employment contract cancelled by a court in the Netherlands with the reasoning that:
When a Netherlands girl marries and has a baby, she stops working. Our foreign women workers, on the other hand, take the child to neighbours or family and at the slightest set-back disappear on sick-leave under the terms of the Sickness Act. They repeat that endlessly. Since we all must do our utmost to avoid going under, we cannot afford such goings-on.
Note that there was no mention of ‘race’, merely ‘foreigners’. Is ‘foreign’ a race, Dawkins? Clearly not, and yet the above was considered to be racial discrimination.
It’s true that I struggle to find a CERD decision where they found that discrimination against Muslims amounted to racial discrimination. The closest I’ve found is Gelle v. Denmark [CERD/C/68/D/34/2004]. The case involves discrimination against Somalians (is ‘Somalian’ a race?), but included reference to comments such as:
Thus a fundamentalist Muslim does in fact not know how to act cultivated and in accordance with Danish democratic traditions. He simply does not have a clue about what it means. Commonly acknowledged principles such as speaking the truth and behaving with dignity and culture – also towards those whom you do not sympathize with – are unfamiliar ground to people like M.Z.
Perhaps more a more complete rejection of Dawkins’ dictionary-based view is The Jewish community of Oslo et al. v. Norway [CERD/C/67/D/30/2003] where CERD appears to agree that hatred towards Jews is — hold on to your hats — racist.
So not only does ‘race’ not have a scientific ground, it’s not even needed as a concept in order to understand ‘racism’. Racism imputes the existence of race, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘race’ has any content outside of social convention.
Let’s back this truck right back up to the start and grapple with the claim that’s really at the heart of this whole mess. Does Richard Dawkins believe that his actions are morally fine simply because they are not racist?
In a sense, we can divorce the morality of Dawkins’ behaviour from our discussion of what is and isn’t racist. When Dawkins says that ‘their culture is such a conspicuous failure’, I really don’t care if it’s technically racist or not. What I do care about is that it’s a morally repugnant thing to say. It’s factually incorrect and a reasonable person would consider that unjustifiably offensive.
If I started Tweeting ‘Australian Indigenous culture is such a conspicuous failure; look at the incarceration rate!’ I can’t respond — as Dawkins did — to accusations of bigotry with ‘How can the assertion of an undeniable fact be bigotry?‘ I can’t also hide behind: ‘You may be reading in an implication that I didn’t intend.‘
People would (correctly) state that I’m being racially discriminatory. Their complaint would not be that, simply because my statement is racially discriminatory, my comment was morally repugnant. Instead, their complaint is that my comment is morally repugnant — it’s leaving out important contextual detail and it’s presented in a way to be inflammatory — and it’s a type of moral repugnancy known as racism. If I can find some lawyerish reason to prove that my comment isn’t actually racist — because the dictionary tells me that Indigenous Australians aren’t a race — that doesn’t mean my comments are no longer morally repugnant.
Carrying on about what is and isn’t racism using specious arguments (dictionary definitions and insane analogies to differences in species) is really just a side show. It’s how Dawkins and his friends like Pat Condell and Geert Wilders can slip and slide around discussing the morality of their actions. The only adequate response to it is: ‘Even if your specious arguments about the definition of “racism” are correct — which they aren’t — your actions are still morally reprehensible, and here’s why.’
On one final note, why did Dawkins choose this particular moment to discharge the bile in his attention-seeking gland? Though I am not prone to conspiracy or irrational whimsy, it does seem rather odd that this created such an enormous splash just as his friend, Lawrence Krauss, is facing accusations of sexual harassment of women at atheist conventions. Krauss denies the accusations and is threatening legal action towards the people who revealed the accusations. Perhaps just a coincidence.
- Please be quiet, Richard Dawkins, I’m begging, as a fan (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
- guardian tecnologia: Richard Dawkins criticised for Twitter comment about Muslims (theguardian.com)
- Richard Dawkins and the Islamic Nobel Prizewinners (pw201.livejournal.com)
- Richard Dawkins does it again: New Atheism’s Islamophobia problem (salon.com)
- Atheism is maturing, and it will leave Richard Dawkins behind (newstatesman.com)
- Richard Dawkins criticized for saying Muslims have few Nobel prizes but ‘did great things in the Middle Ages’ (rawstory.com)