De-platforming, Dawkins and debate

A look into September’s controversy surrounding the dis-invitation of Richard Dawkins to the Hist

Eleven years ago, in 2009, the University of Oklahoma was investigated by the Oklahoma State Legislature for permitting Richard Dawkins to speak albeit under different circumstances than those that have raised attention to Dawkins around Trinity in the last few weeks. Dawkins was put under investigation in Oklahoma for his views on abortion and the theory of evolution, with the legislature releasing a resolution declaring Dawkins’ views as “contrary and offensive to the views and opinions of most citizens of Oklahoma”.

In recent weeks, Dawkins’ name has circled around Trinity and outside it after an invitation to speak to the College Historical Society (the Hist) was withdrawn. It’s sparked discussion around platforming and deplatforming, free speech, and respect, but the situation is more nuanced than many might realise.

On September 27, Bríd O’Donnell, the auditor of the Hist, announced on her Instagram story that the society’s invitation to famous evolutionary biologist and public intellectual Richard Dawkins to address the Hist had been rescinded. O’Donnell said in her statement that she had been “unaware of Richard Dawkins’ opinions on Islam and sexual assault until this evening”. 

The invitation had been issued by the previous auditor, and O’Donnell said she followed up on it with “limited knowledge” about Dawkins, before a number of ordinary members flagged his past statements. “I had read his Wikipedia page and researched him briefly. Regretfully, I didn’t look further into him before moving forward with the invitation,” O’Donnell said. “The comfort of our membership is paramount, and we will not be proceeding with Professor Dawkins’ address. I apologize for any distress caused by this announcement, and the Hist will continue to listen and adapt to the needs and comfort of students.”

“The legislature released a resolution declaring Dawkins’ views as “contrary and offensive to the views and opinions of most citizens of Oklahoma”.

The response to this decision was predictably immense and fierce. Piers Morgan, the provocative English presenter and commentator, retweeted an article from the University Times on the story, labelling it “pathetic”. The well known science author Steven Pinker also tweeted his disapproval of the decision, along with numerous public figures and academics, including Trinity professors Tomás Ryan and Brian Lucey. Ronan Lyons, Professor of Economics at Trinity, tweeted: “This is concerning. College is not about comfort – indeed, it’s arguable that one of the key things higher education does is push people outside their comfort zone, as part of the process of self-improvement.” 

In an open letter to O’Donnell, free speech activist Toby Young of the Free Speech Union noted that he was, “particularly disappointed because I have always admired the Hist for the willingness of its members to discuss uncomfortable ideas. This tradition was distilled by one of your members, Oscar Wilde, who said: ‘I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.’ Wilde’s spirited defence of robust public debate seems a more likely source of inspiration than offering them a blanket of sanitised ‘comfort’.”

Dawkins describes himself as a “militant atheist”, and has written a number of best-selling books outlining his beliefs on the subject, including The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker. In a 2011 article in the Times Educational Supplement, Dawkins claimed that Muslim faith schools had a “pernicious influence” by teaching the “alien rubbish” of creationism. He said he had concerns with all faith schools, but that Muslim faith schools worried him the most. 

He has also stated that women who are sexually assaulted should refrain from drinking “if they want to be in a position to testify and jail a man”. This is just one of several controversial statements Dawkins has made in relation to sexual assault in the last decade. 

 “According to O’Donnell, when the invitation to Dawkins was made, he expressed a specific preference not to take part in a debate.”

Speaking to Trinity News, O’Donnell said that there was a lot of confusion over the purpose of Richard Dawkins’ visit to the Hist. Many commentators believed that Dawkins had been disinvited from speaking in a debate or as part of a panel. According to O’Donnell, when the invitation to Dawkins was made, he expressed a specific preference not to take part in a debate. 

Dawkins’ visit was in fact going to consist of a guest lecture from Dawkins himself, followed by a presentation of the Gold Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Public Discourse. O’Donnell believed that the awarding of a medal “would be viewed as an uncritical endorsement of the speaker, which was not our intention at all”. O’Donnell was taken aback by the reaction to the rescinding of Dawkins’ invitation. “It wasn’t what any of us thought would happen, especially considering that most of the reaction occurred off-campus. I think that was the more surprising aspect of it.” 

O’Donnell opposed the controversial decision to invite Nigel Farage to address the Hist in 2018, and to be awarded the Medal for Outstanding Contribution. The then-auditor Paul Molloy defended the decision to host Farage, stating in a Facebook post at the time that “the Society plays host to numerous individuals of divergent views, many of which our members feel strongly and passionately about. This is the nature of free enquiry in a democratic society. It is by that enquiry the strength of ideas and the validity of beliefs are challenged and upheld.” Farage ultimately came to speak, but was not awarded the Medal. The current Hist committee released a statement during this summer saying they “deeply regret” platforming Farage. 

O’Donnell believes that the purpose of the Hist is to “allow students to engage in a debate in an environment of respect and dignity”. She added: “this is why I don’t think rescinding the invitation to Dawkins illustrates an unwillingness to hear opposing views, but rather as maintaining an environment of dignity and respect where debate can occur among students. To have a free and fair debate, there needs to be an environment of respect and dignity.” O’Donnell does not believe that there is a conflict between the comfort of the members of the Hist and free and open debate, and that “honestly, the times when you are the most persuasive and open-minded, is when you are treating someone with respect and dignity”. 

The debate on de-platforming on campuses is a global one that looks set to rage on into the future. In 2017, a year before the Farage controversy, a planned speech from the Israeli ambassador was cancelled minutes before beginning due to a backlash from students. At least as far back as the 1980s, debates were raging about whether Holocaust denier David Irving should be permitted to speak on Trinity campus.

Those who see platforming as a form of endorsement, and who believe that the espousal of certain views makes fair and safe debate impossible, often believe that those with views deemed discriminatory or “problematic” should be removed from public forums. The movement to deplatform speakers perceived as racist, misogynist, xenophobic, or climate denying includes numerous academics, activists and students. On the other hand, there is a growing backlash to this phenomenon, with some commentators saying that uncomfortable views and ideas are a necessary part of debate, and de-platforming prevents the exercise of free and fair competition in the marketplace of ideas. Some argue that if an idea cannot stand on its own merit, and needs to be shielded from criticism, then that draws into question the validity of the idea itself.

While the rescinding of Dawkins’ invitation was always going to be contentious, it’s a more nuanced issue than most commentary surrounding it would make it appear. The current committee believes that free and fair debate is impossible in an environment where students feel unsafe, and did not want to be seen to uncritically endorse a speaker, some of whose views they considered repugnant. Others feel the case raises questions about what the role of a debating society is, and what exactly their obligation is to the College community.