Cleaning it off is a lifetime’s work
You know what a “cult of personality” is? It’s when your hero can do no wrong; when the great leader becomes more important than the ideas he or she is offering.
Most religions are cults of personality. God says don’t kill, for example, but he can order the Israelites to murder all the Midianites and it’s OK. Some political leaders have cults of personality, like Michele Bachmann. She can say any damn thing at all and her followers will right away start working on why that was OK for her to say that.
Fundamentalists love to diss atheism by claiming it’s a religion, which is kind of funny in itself. And quite naturally they’re looking for the personality of which atheism is a cult. Carl Sagan, maybe, or Christopher Hitchins or Richard Dawkins. These are all admired figures, so AHA! It’s a religion!
Not quite, and a recent Internet kerfluffle illustrates why.
Picture an Atheist conference in Dublin with a bunch of Skeptics talking about science-y stuff, and one of the awesome SkepChicks named Rebecca Watson had given a video review of the conference and her role in it. During the conference she mostly had a wonderful time, except for when some guy hit on her in an elevator – at 4am no less – and she uses the incident as an example to say more or less “Guys, word to the wise, that’s creepy, don’t do it.” (4:30 in the video).
Fellows, that is absolutely sound advice. If you don’t know why it’s creepy to hit on a woman at 4:00 in the morning after following her into a soundproof steel box, I just don’t know what to do with you. But a lot of guys who saw the video responded with mocking messages, and even threats, which pretty much proved her point that the atheist community has some consciousness-raising to do in its own ranks.
Enter Richard Dawkins, widely-admired atheist leader. He’s a brilliant author, a popularizer of science and atheism, and even a champion of women’s rights. And he was at the conference and heard Watson’s talk. So you’d expect him to shake his head and offer some clever Britticism about how rude/sub-textually threatening the guy was, right?
Nope: he completely dismissed the idea that the guy hitting on her in that setting was either sexist or threatening, in the most condescending language possible. He posited a hypothetical Muslim women who had been mutilated, raped, and persecuted as a reason why Rebecca Watson’s experience didn’t matter. Really. Reading the comment you can almost hear him cramming his privileged academic foot into his mouth.
Never mind that Watson didn’t in any way compare her discomfiture in the elevator to the persecution of women in Islamist lands – he went there in her stead. It’s an amazingly tone-deaf response. Somewhat less surprisingly, he found himself in the middle of a well-deserved Internet Shitstorm, to which he has not, as of this writing, satisfactorily responded.
A few people defended him – possibly the same ones who wrote other condescending and even threatening responses to Watson. But many more condemned him on no uncertain terms. Some even went so far as to say; “I’m not buying or recommending his books anymore.”
That’s not a cult-of-personality response. Clearly, a popular atheist leader can step in it big time and have a big job cleaning it off. And that’s exactly as it should be: there’s no infallible throne in atheism, skepticism, or Humanism.
I hope Dawkins will apologize, and change his ways and tune. But if there’s anything to learn from this whole event (beyond respecting women’s dignity, personal space and safety), it’s this: your hero in whatever field is just an ordinary person who happens to have gone far in one thing. Martin Luther King was apparently not a model husband. Ghandi had some rather weird obsessions. And Richard Dawkins is still a brilliant author, if a bit tarnished.
And a common theme is that many of our heroes’ faults revolve around gender and sex issues. It seems to be part of being human and living in a screwed-up society. Most of us could live two lifetimes and never get it quite right – and a couple more might not help. Because even when we know better, sometimes we just say stupid or wrong things. Have you never watched your own words escaping? while another part of your brain is screaming; “SHut up! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” I wonder if even the “elevator guy” is trying to figure out how to apologize without making it worse.
Don’t worry, atheist community; we’re in no danger of having any perfect leaders. Don’t defend wrong things or make excuses for them. Be ready to call them on it when it’s all over their shoes. Be glad they’re only human; the other kind are much more trouble in the long run.
- I edited the last paragraph a bit for clarity the morning after writing this post. The last sentence originally read; “Just remember yourself when you do.” But when I woke up I realized the meaning was a bit obscure, which I guess is sort of an example in itself.