Although this is a family-friendly website, there are times when I myself feel uncivil and have to withhold epithets and cursewords that fight to emerge onto paper. This usually occurs when I see someone who should know better distorting facts to further his/her/their ideology, creating a misleading argument.
In this case that “someone” happens to be Hemant Mehta, the so-called “Friendly Atheist,” who for the past couple of years has been taking out after Richard Dawkins for being “transphobic”, all on the basis of a couple of tweets shown below. The tweets, as you’ll see, are not transphobic, but part of the ongoing discourse among liberals about how far “transsexual equality” should go. Should transsexual women participate in women’s sports, be rape counselors, or incarcerated in men’s prisons? Is there a difference in thinking that your identity is black when you’re white and in thinking that you’re a woman when you’re a man? Is feeling that you’re a black person in a white person’s body meaningfully different from feeling you’re a man in a woman’s body?
Apparently merely asking these questions is “transphobic”, a ridiculous slur leveled at those of us who think the questions above need to be discussed and yet, at the same time, favor treating transexual or transgender people with respect, affording them equality in nearly every way. “Transphobic”, the slur used by Mehta, is only part of his latest column at the nonreligious site Only Sky. Along with Dawkins, Mehta’s target is also Robyn Blumner (head of both the Center for Inquiry and the Richard Dawkins Foundation), whose recent recent column in Skeptical Inquiry, “Identitarianism is incompatible with humanism“, I discussed here.
Click below to read Mehta’s piece and my analysis of it.
Let’s take up the Blumner-dissing first. It’s clear from reading Robyn’s piece and seeing the examples she uses, that the “incompatibility” is not between all of of identity politics and humanism, but between “performative” or “woke” identity politics and humanism. (I have noted before that Mehta is growing increasingly woke, and by “woke” I mean “engaged in performative virtue signaling”. In fact, that’s exactly what Mehta does in this piece!)
Blumner says this at the outset of her piece (my emphasis):
I fear that our cohesion as fellow humanists is being torn apart by a strain of identitarianism that is making enemies of long-standing friends and opponents of natural allies.
Just at a time when it is essential for all of us to come together to work arm-in-arm against Christian Nationalism and the rise of religious privilege in law, humanism is facing a schism within its own movement. It is heartbreaking to watch and even more disheartening to know that the continued breach seems destined to grow.
Note that she says a “STRAIN of identitarianism”, not “identitariaism”. Shortly thereafter she identifies this strain as what I call “authoritarian Leftism”: in her case the identitarians who aren’t keen on free speech:
Today, there is a subpart of humanists, identitarians, who are suspicious of individuals and their freedoms. They do not want a free society if it means some people will use their freedom to express ideas with which they disagree. They see everything through a narrow affiliative lens of race, gender, ethnicity, or other demographic category and seek to shield groups that they see as marginalized by ostensible psychic harms inflicted by the speech of others.
It’s clear from the outset that by “identitarians who aren’t down with humanism,” Blumner’s referring to those woke identitarians who suppress counterspeech and try to censor the speech those who oppose them. And she’s right, for if anything is characteristic of humanism, it’s belief in the right of people to speak their minds and the need for their opponents to hear them. She’s talking about the kind of identitarians who try to quash their opponents through demonizing and name calling rather than rational argument. Indeed, when Mehta takes up Dawkins’s “transphobia” in this piece, he completely avoids the points Dawkins was trying to make. Either Mehta is ignorant, which he’s not, or he’s distorting Dawkins’s words and slinging around slurs to kill the messenger and the message. And that makes Mehta intellectually dishonest. Even P. Z. Myers has recognized this division, which I believe he calls “Deep Rifts”.
Instantiating this schism, which we all know exists, Blumner cites the American Humanists Association revoking Dawkins’s 1996 Humanist of the Year Award for the supposedly “transphobic” tweets mentioned below.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, here’s the way Mehta dismisses Blumner’s main argument:
The problem with [Blumner’s] argument here is that she uses right-wing rhetoric to exaggerate what those critics are actually saying. And—this may be the most damning thing about her essay besides her initial citation from Urban Dictionary—she neglects to explain why those critics are so upset in the first place.
No, the critics are themselves exaggerating what Dawkins said. Mehta and the “transphobe-word” slingers are engaging in the same type of anti-humanist tactics that Dan Dennett warned us about: assuming at the outset the worst possible construal of an intellectual opponent’s arguments. Dawkins is not a transphobe, but has issues about transsexual rights; about the mantras “trans women are women” and “trans men are men.” I have those same issues, but, like Richard, they don’t involve demonizing transsexuals or transgender people. Rather, they involve civil philosophical exploration about how far this equality should extend.
More by Mehta on Blumner’s piece:
By claiming identity politics are antithetical to humanism, the head of one of the largest humanist groups in the country is also claiming trans rights and social justice aren’t as important. If Dawkins wants to throw trans people under the bus under the guise of a hypothetical question, then Blumner wants Humanists to just accept that in the name of unity. Anything less, she says, distracts us from coming together “to work arm-in-arm against Christian Nationalism.” (You know what else distracts us from working against Christian nationalism? The most famous atheist in the world helping Christian nationalists demonize trans people.)
Does Mehta realize, or did he bother to find out, what Blumner means by “identity politics”? She described the invidious aspect of some identitarians in the passage above, and it’s not the same thing as black people pushing for less racism or LGBTQ+ people pushing for moral acceptance. Blumner is talking about what all of us know about, and what is palpably true: humanists on the Left have become split into those who are woke versus those who are “anti-woke” but still adhere to humanistic ideals. The schism that Mehta deems “exaggerated” is in fact one so profound that it even threatens Democratic victories in this fall’s election. As a reader pointed out here yesterday, it was “identity politics” that helped secure civil rights and gay rights in the last 70 years. Is Blumner against that kind of “identitarianism”? I seriously doubt it!
As for Dawkins “throwing trans people under the bus under the guise of a hypothetical question,” that’s just a lie. Read on and judge for yourself.
At any rate, Dawkins’s tweets and the suggestion by California school authorities that calculus be de-emphasized in school curricula (a move meant to achieve “equity” in math achievement, since many minority students don’t do well in calculus or math in general) are all characterized by Mehta as “the best examples of cancel culture and ‘identitarianism’ [Blumner] can find”, implying that there aren’t any more. He’s arguing that Blumner can come up with only a few examples because the supposed rift just doesn’t exist.
Mehta knows better than this. He could, for example, consult FIRE’s Disinvitation Database to see many, many examples of the Left trying to suppress free speech: exactly Blumner’s point. (Presumably much of the left would identify as “humanists”.)
Now on to Dawkins’s “transphobic tweets”. Here’s the first one from seven years ago, and you probably remember it:
Is trans woman a woman? Purely semantic. If you define by chromosomes, no. If by self-identification, yes. I call her "she" out of courtesy.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) October 26, 2015
In 2015, Dawkins tweeted that trans women weren’t women because their chromosomes said otherwise, boiling a complicated and nuanced issue down to a simple binary. Then he added that he would still use their pronouns if they wanted as if he were doing them a favor.
It was a remarkably ignorant tweet. But maybe you give the guy a break. Maybe he didn’t realize the problems with what he was saying. It was, after all, 2015, and Dawkins was in his 70s. Maybe he just didn’t know why a seemingly harmless comment would be controversial.
It’s controversial precisely because many trans activists, and Mehta himself, get riled up by mere discussion of these issues, deeming their opponents “transphobes”, and taking the worst possible interpretation of their opponent’s views. The problem is that many seemingly harmless comments set off the woke, giving them what feeds their psyches: opportunities to flaunt their virtue by enacting a “performance”. And that’s what we see here.
First of all, yes, it whether a transwoman is a “woman” is a semantic question, for it deals with redefining what we’ve long considered as “biological” sex. What do you call a transsexual woman? Is she a “biological woman” or a “biological man who identifies as a woman”? (I would use gametes instead of chromosomes as the separating feature, but the correlation between gamete size and chromosomal constitution in humans is close to one.) “Courtesy” is, charitably interpreted (the way I’d have said it), “Out of respect for the person’s wishes and feelings.” But this is really a distinction without a difference; you use someone’s preferred pronouns to be civil to them. Even if you don’t accept their characterization, there’s no reason to be disrespectful or hurtful.
But what is most misleading about Mehta’s characterization is his claim that Richard is saying “trans women aren’t women because their chromosomes say otherwise.” That is simply a gross and willful distortion of Dawkins’s claims.
But it gets worse. Here’s a second tweet highlighted by Mehta, one that leaves out crucial information:
But then, last year, he did it again. It was even more egregious this time around.
So now, he was comparing trans people to a white woman who pretended to be Black, said that being transgender was a choice, and acted like those who challenged any aspect of trans identities were the real victims. If that weren’t enough, he added “Discuss”… as if trans lives were a matter of debate. (Two days later, he tried to walk back some of this.)
First of all, Dolezal was not “pretending” to be black; she identified as being a black person. I don’t see a substantive difference between that and a transgender woman identifying as being a man. You could be uncharitable in saying that in both cases the person is “pretending”, but that misses the nuance of the case. Transsexualism and transracialism have many things in common, as philosopher Rebecca Tuvel pointed out in a notorious but thought-provoking paper. And of course, just for pointing out the similarities (which could lead to a philosophical justification of transracialism), Tuvel was demonized by her colleagues, the media, trans activists, and social media. But she didn’t back down, and she shouldn’t have, either. It’s a good question, one that elicits kneejerk reactions from people who don’t think the issue through.
Being transracialist may not be any more of a “choice” than being transgender; both could be biological imperatives, and in Dolezal’s case I think it was.
But the worst part of presenting this tweet is Mehta’s deliberately not showing out the immediately succeeding clarifying tweet about the word “discuss” and misleadingly saying that Dawkins tried to “walk back” his views. No, he wasn’t walking them back—retracting them—he was clarifying them. Do you get that distinction, Mr. Mehta?
Let’s look at the pair of tweets now, separated by two days.
I do not intend to disparage trans people. I see that my academic “Discuss” question has been misconstrued as such and I deplore this. It was also not my intent to ally in any way with Republican bigots in US now exploiting this issue .
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) April 12, 2021
The “discuss” issue is precisely what Tuvel did in her paper, and in a scholarly way (I recommend reading it; the flap about this paper precisely illustrates Blumner’s point about the schism). And note that Richard vigorously denies disparaging trans people or associating with Republican bigots (note that Mehta accuses him of adopting the ideas of Christian nationalists).
Since Mehta knows about this clarification, which should both serve to dispel the “transphobia” accusation against Dawkins as well as clarify the meaning of “discuss”, his tangential mention of it here seems to me a case of intellectual duplicity: downplaying clarification and pretending it’s a retractin. If Mehta were, as he claims he is, an honest and objective critic, he would not only have shown the second tweet, but mentioned the Tuvel paper. But Mehta isn’t urging his readers to weigh different views; he’s urging them to accept his distorted view of the situation. Again we see instantiation of The Schism.
I won’t go on except to say that Mehta goes after Blumner for using as an example of the schism the fight in California over whether calculus should be included in the math curriculum. Yet he admits that it is indeed a schism. I quote him in full (bolding is Mehta’s]:
The other example [Blumner] cites in her piece, by the way, is “a draft plan in California to deemphasize calculus as a response to persistent racial gaps in math achievement.
Suddenly a subject as racially neutral as math has become a flashpoint for identitarians set on ensuring equality of outcomes for certain groups rather than the far-more just standard of equality of opportunity. In this freighted environment, reducing the need for rigor and eliminating challenging standards becomes a feasible solution. The notion of individual merit or recognition that some students are better at math than others becomes racially tinged and suspect.
Once again, that description ignores a very real and very complicated debate at the center of math education. Simply put, American schools often steer the best math students in the direction of calculus, even though that’s not necessarily the most useful subject for them. Statistics or data science are arguably more important to learn, and more relevant to our current lives compared to solving integrals and calculating derivatives, therefore pushing kids in those directions rather than calculus could be worthwhile, especially when the reality is that students of color sometimes struggle with that subject. (As the New York Times notes, “calculus is not even offered in most schools that serve a large number of Black and Latino students.”)
None of that means those students aren’t gifted in math, only that demanding they succeed at calculus—and only calculus—is extremely short-sighted. There are many ways students can be excellent mathematicians.
The debate is complicated, but Mehta does all he can to argue that calculus should not be required, because many students who do well in math don’t do well in calculus. But how is one to find that out without trying to teach math students calculus? And of course “statistics and data science” aren’t offered in many secondary schools. The fact that there is a debate, and it proceeds along identitarian lines (“woke” humanists don’t want required calculus; other ones do) also shows there’s a schism. And even though Mehta was a math teach in his previous life, I am not going to accept his assertion that trying to teach math students calculus may not be “useful” for them. One has to at least try.
Mehta tries hurling one more zinger at Blumner, asking her to write an article she didn’t write:
No one’s asking CFI to change its mission to become a purely social justice and civil rights-oriented organization. But they could at least stop complaining when the rest of us push back against the (often faith-based) attacks on marginalized groups because our version of Humanism demands it even if theirs doesn’t.
Blumner could easily have offered a better path forward. What’s the proper way, in her mind, for people to educate Dawkins? To correct his mistakes? To criticize him? What’s her organization doing to make sure it’s supporting trans people who are vulnerable to Christian nationalist legislation?
I don’t see Blumner calling for an end to free speech or discussion: she’s trying to point out a schism that might be politically unproductive and certainly not useful to the image of humanists.
And, to quote Mehta, he could easily have offered a better path forward. Can he at least characterize his opponents’ views correctly before he tears them apart or accuses them of being running dogs of Christian nationalists?
The palpable fact that Mehta’s wokeness causes him to distort his opponent’s arguments is the best evidence that Blumner’s thesis is right. I’m a humanist, but I’m not going to hurl slurs of “transphobia” (and implicit accusations of racism) at people who are trying to make honest arguments. But I will hurl one slur at Mehta: he is being intellectually dishonest in the service of an ideology.