Dawkins on freedom of speech and the Joyce video

August 24, 2023 • 12:45 pm

This may again be old news, but after I called attention to Richard Dawkins’s video with Helen Joyce this morning, I found out two things from Twitter (it does have its uses). First, people complained to YouTube about that video on the grounds that it contained “violent speech”. (If you watched it, you’ll see how stupid that complaint is.) Second, that prompted Dawkins to write an article on freedom of speech, and the distortion of language, for London’s Evening Standard. You can see that article by clicking on the screenshot below the tweet.

Dawkins first describes several instances of censorship or deplatforming he encountered, including the American Humanist’s Association retracting his 1996 Humanist of the Year Award for this “discuss” tweet (note his explanation):

The difference between transgenderism and transracialism is a perfectly good and intriguing philosophical question to discuss, but merely raising it cost Dawkins his award. This reflects very badly on the American Humanist Association, and not on Dawkins.

But what’s relevant today is that the video with Helen Joyce was reported to YouTube as an example of “hate speech”.  And there was a punishment levied, though the video wasn’t banned:

On July 26, I interviewed Helen Joyce about her book Trans. The interview is being very well received on YouTube. As it should be, for Joyce is extremely well-informed in her subject and she spoke cogently, soberly, reasonably.

But one of YouTube’s in-house judges heard only hate. And tried to censor the interview.

Short of an outright ban, YouTube has a variety of punishments at its disposal. In this case we got a minor slap on the wrist, a restriction on our video’s licence to advertise. But the real point is, yet again, the ludicrous hypersensitivity of the complainant. Those warped ears heard not reasonable argument deserving a reply, but “hateful and derogatory content”, and “hate or harassment towards individuals or groups”.

Obviously I can’t disprove that here. The interview runs to more than 10,000 words. But judge for yourself, it’s still up on YouTube. I earnestly challenge Evening Standard readers to search diligently for literally anything that a reasonable speaker of the English language could fairly call hateful. Enter it, labelled “Challenge”, in the comments section under the video, and I promise to respond.

I just said “a reasonable speaker of the English language”, and maybe here lies the key: language. If we want a fruitful argument, we’d better speak the same language. In today’s overheated sparring over sex and gender, both sides may appear to be speaking English, but is it the same English? Does “hate” mean to you what “hate” means to everyone else?

The complaints to YouTube, if you’ve seen the video, are clearly from the hyperoffended, and should be ignored. There is nothing “hateful or derogatory” in the entire video.  But that leads Richard into a discussion of the debasement of language, in particular the words “hate” and “violence”. We all know how these words have been defanged by the woke or Easily Offended, with “hate” now meaning “any speech I do not like” and “violent” meaning pretty much the same thing. This blurs the distinction between real hatred and discussion that offends someone, as well as between genuine physical violence and, again, something that hurts someone’s feelings.

This blurring is deliberate. It’s hyperbolic, meant to confuse people and make discussion almost impossible because some ideological discusssion (i.e., that which criticizes wokeness) is seen as hateful and violent. It’s telling that these substitute words are used by the woke, not the antiwoke, and are meant to control discourse by shutting up the latter.  Dawkins, of course, has something interesting to say about this:

As a textbook example of incitement to real violence, you could hardly do better than “Sarah Jane” Baker’s speech at London Pride this year, where she told the cheering crowd: “If you see a TERF, punch them in the fucking face”. Or Sky News (January 23) has a picture of two SNP politicians grinning in front of a large, colourful sign depicting a guillotine and the slogan “DECAPITATE TERFS”. They claimed they didn’t know the sign was there, and I sympathise. You shouldn’t be blamed for the company you keep. No doubt I shall be labelled “right-wing” for writing this article — and that’s the most unkindest cut of all.

The Guardian (February 14, 2020) reported that police officers turned up at Harry Miller’s workplace to warn him about his allegedly “transphobic” tweets, such as the obviously satirical, “I was assigned Mammal at Birth, but my orientation is Fish. Don’t mis-species me.” One of them told Miller that he had not committed a crime, but his tweeting “was being recorded as a hate incident”. [JAC: The UK police really need to learn the meaning of “freedom of speech”.]

Well, if Miller’s light-hearted satire is a hate incident, why not go after Monty Python, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Rowan Atkinson, Private Eye’s royal romances of Sylvie Krin, the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, Lady Addle Remembers, Tom Lehrer, even the benign PG Wodehouse? Satire is satire. That’s what satirists do, they get good-natured laughs and perform a valuable service to society.

“Assigned Mammal at Birth” satirises the trans-speak evasion of the biological fact that our sex is determined at conception by an X or a Y sperm. What I didn’t know, and learned from Joyce in our interview, is that small children are being taught, using a series of colourful little books and videos, that their “assigned” sex is just a doctor’s best guess, looking at them when they were born.

And so it goes. There’s more in the article, but read it for yourself. I’ll give you just the ending, after Dawkins has noted that we don’t live in an Orwellian society, one with a Gestapo or Stasi:

But shouldn’t we just indulge the harmless whims of an oppressed minority? Maybe, were it not for a strain of aggressive bossiness which insists, not so very harmlessly and not sounding very oppressed, that the rest of us must humour those whims and join in. This compulsion even has the force of law in some states. And alas, we often zip our lips in abject self-censorship because we aren’t as brave as JK Rowling, and don’t fancy becoming a target of Twittermob vitriol. No, we don’t fear Big Brother or the Stasi. We fear each other.

23 thoughts on “Dawkins on freedom of speech and the Joyce video

  1. At some level, this is proof (to some!) of the Demiurge – the evil demon of gnosticism.

    Obviously, if Dawkins had said nothing, the Demiurge would not have made the social conflict. Therefore, the activists are construed as the good side.

    BTW “vitriol” is found in hermetic alchemy:

    Visita Interiorem Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem (“Visit the interior of the earth and by rectifying you shall find the hidden stone”)

    It’s found on ancient diagrams of the Philosopher’s stone. I’m serious, it’s weird but true.

  2. And this is the reason that the issue matters to those of us who consider ourselves to be skeptical. I don’t care what other people believe about themselves, but I can’t accept it when they demand that we all act is if their self-concept is true.

    The astonishing, and frankly disheartening, issue is that there are a number of noted skeptics who decry those of us who are skeptical of the idea that men who believe they are women are actually women. They agree that we must accept it by fiat, and use purposeful misdirection of biological understanding of non-mammals that change sex in response to environmental pressures (which has nothing to do with the transgender claim,) or refer to VSD’s and DSD’s to claim that there is our proof that sex is a spectrum and not a binary. Even PZ goes along and poisons the well against skeptics and call us asshats. And he was one that I trusted to be honestly skeptical since I have spent considerable time with him. (I know that looks like name-dropping, but it does further my point.) Neil DeGrasse Tyson made an off-the-cuff video that basically excused gender fluidity as valid scientifically and that we should just leave folks alone who claim it.

    The truth matters, and especially when our social structure is being asked to accommodate a lie while watching gender non-conforming kids being fed drugs to stop normal development in case they are trans, or asked to put men in prisons with women who can’t escape their assaults and violence, or asked to accept men in their private change rooms or rape shelters. These things do matter.

    I’m happy to see that you are questioning this, Jerry, as well as are Dawkins and Shermer. But I think that many of the noted skeptics are going to have to answer for their role when this all starts to shake out. I’m looking at you, Novella and Gorsky, Myers, Hemant Mehta, NDT, and all of those who, instead of questioning this social movement, went the “hateful bigot” route instead.

    I would think that the deprecation of advertising for this video would shake at least one or two trees.

    1. I think I follow you, so I’m not going after you per se, but this notion I’d like to examine:

      “… we should just leave folks alone who claim it.”

      Let’s say I identify as a Creationist. I apply for a position as President of the American Library Association – and get that position – after elaborating on the Creationist reading of the library, including hiring activist Creationist service librarians to help educate the patrons on that reading, and rewriting library subject headings to conform to that Creationist reading – including categorizing Creationism as science instead of religion. Should I be “left alone”?

      If not, then should Emily Drabinski be left alone to do just that except instead of Creationists and Creationism, it is claiming to be a Queer Marxist and it is Queer Theory?

      Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction
      Emily Drabinski
      The Library Quarterly 83, 2, 2013


    2. “The astonishing, and frankly disheartening, issue is that there are a number of noted skeptics who decry those of us who are skeptical of the idea that men who believe they are women are actually women.”

      Politically, I’m an American centrist (though I’ve been leaning more than usual to the Democratic side since Trump started dominating the Republican party). One thing obvious to me that might not be so obvious to others in Skeptic/Atheist circles is that American skeptics and atheists tend to lean far to the political left. I’ve only known one Republican atheist/skeptic and he was a moderate. It really shouldn’t be a surprise since conservative religious people are usually very hostile to atheism and scientific skepticism arguments that touch on their beliefs. We aren’t exactly welcomed there.

      Skeptics aren’t Vulcans. It’s one thing to be rational about Bigfoot claims, but another where value judgments are involved. If a notion is popular on the political left, it will likely be popular with skeptics. Personally, I’ve noticed how American skeptics are often actively hostile to arguments for smaller government, pro-capitalism or business, free speech where it doesn’t benefit leftist causes, etc. They also are usually hostile to people that promote those things. Gender ideology is no different. It shouldn’t be surprising that skeptics don’t always make rational judgments.

  3. “…why not go after Monty Python, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Rowan Atkinson, Private Eye’s royal romances of Sylvie Krin, the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, Lady Addle Remembers, Tom Lehrer…” But of course, satire is the very definition of “speech is violence”. In DEItopia, the slightest hint of irony will be reported to the speech police, noted on the perpetrator’s record, and result in a sentence of retraining and enforced penitence.

  4. I just finished watching this excellent interview. Dawkins is such a gentleman. He asks good questions and follows up well, but with kindness, to draw the interviewee out further. Excellent technique.

    And, of course, excellent substance. It’s interesting that Helen Joyce isn’t so accepting of the idea of using the pronouns and other sex references that trans people want us to use. I suppose that this is because doing so tacitly accepts as fact that transition from one biological sex to another is real—or, at least provides encouragement for that view. She’s pretty hard line about this. I’m OK with calling a trans woman a “she” if that’s what the person prefers, simply as a matter of civility, but it seems that Joyce sees may regard doing so as intellectually dishonest. Perhaps she talks about this in her book.

    1. Making a point to use unexpected pronouns is literally thought reform – both affecting the thought of identification as male or female, and the pronoun speaker as well in terms of destabilizing their confidence in innate discernment of male from female generally. All in a socializing setting.

      Maybe it is weak, but maybe Joyce is just wary of the whole Mao Zedong hse nao (wash brain) thing.

    2. If John changes his name to Jane, I will gladly call him “Jane.” Personal names rarely say anything about the underlying reality of the people to whom they refer. John could choose “Almond” or “Z,” and I would use those, too. Pronouns are different. (There is a complicated linguistic argument about the difference that others could make here.) To call John “she” means to either accept or to pretend that John is, in fact, a female. I understand why some would adopt telling the polite lie, but I choose not to. As you suggest, it is polite yet intellectually dishonest, with potential ramifications far more serious than insincerely saying “Of course I love your new haircut!” (I’ve never been able to do that, either! So maybe this is a matter of disposition.)

      In any case, when would I ever have need to call John “she” while speaking to John or speaking about him in his presence? Mostly, we are speaking not of politeness but of avoiding the ire of the language police who in John’s absence, even behind closed doors or in private email correspondence, will sally forth with their correction: John goes by ‘she.’ They have their reward.

    3. The issue is when, for example, a male is taking wins from female athletes, an intact male is walking naked through a female locker room, or an intact male rapist is on trial. It is giving up much of the argument if you refer to them as “she.” In those cases it is entirely reasonable to refer to the person as “he.” Heck, TRAs often claim a person is a transphobe just for pointing out that transwomen are male. You must deny reality for the cause.

      I don’t take as hard line a position as her, I am fine with using preferred pronouns in typical social situations and I don’t want to punish trans people (who can be quite reasonable) for the actions of extremists. But I do reserve the right to use pronouns that I feel are appropriate depending on the circumstances. Another option I’ve seen some take is to refer to everyone as “they” and avoid pronouns as much as possible.

      I watched the video a few days ago. There is nothing hateful in the video, but it is like an atheist taking a hard line on islam and getting called hateful and an islamophobe for it. Disagreeing with their beliefs is considered unacceptable.

  5. Wouldn’t surprise me if former humanist/skeptic turned anti-science hack Hemant Mehta reported the video.

  6. My one bit of pushback is that you, in fact, can be blamed for the company you keep. Or at least, the company you decide not to throw away.

  7. From #2 above: “The astonishing, and frankly disheartening, issue is that there are a number of noted skeptics who decry those of us who are skeptical . . .”

    Speaking of the educated classes in the early years of Soviet Russia, they suffered “from the fear of being left out in the cold, of not moving with the times.” After all, “it is not so simple to go against everybody and against the times. To some degree, as we stood at the crossroads, we all had the temptation to rush after everyone else, to join the crowd that knew where it was going. The power of the ‘general will’ is enormous—to resist it is much harder than people think.”

    (From “Hope Against Hope,” Nadezhda Mandelstam, with tip to Gary Saul Morson, “Wonder Confronts Certainty”).

    The intellectual and professional classes seem particularly prone to this phenomenon, especially in those precincts in which professional reputation and advancement hinge almost entirely on praise of peers. (They are also prone to convincing themselves that the nonsense that they utter is true rather than spouted out of either trendiness, cravenness, or desire for self-advancement.) We can have a somewhat distorted view of the record of intellectuals, praising as we have the dissidents from the Soviet Union or those intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany. Far more in number were those who stayed and supported the regimes, many of whom tried to destroy their peers either to advance themselves or save their own skins. Yes, yes, we are not the Soviet Union; we are not the Third Reich. But look around at those who will denounce the truth speakers now when all the denouncers get for it is praise in certain public quarters, employment in support of the cause, or the cheap thrills of righteous indignation and of being on the supposed front-line of Progress. Do we really think that their behavior would improve if their livelihoods, freedom, or lives were at stake?

  8. Great article by Prof Dawkins!

    Also, recently there was another article in the NYT on troubles at a Gender Clinic.


    It seemed fair and balanced, though since it ultimately discusses some of the criticisms of the gender re-assignment strategies in the clinic, I’m sure it will be seen by trans-activists as yet another black mark – “the NYT keeps writing gender skepticism stories, never fully positive stories on transitioning genders! They are just fomenting transphobia!”

    I note that in this part of the article:

    “By the end of 2021, emails show, the clinic was getting calls from four or five new patients every day — a sharp rise from 2018, when it saw that many over the course of a month. And, according to an internal presentation from 2021, 73 percent of new patients were identified as girls at birth.”

    ….the author of the NYT article is careful not to toe the transgender activist line of saying the sex was “assigned” at birth, but uses the more biologically correct “identified at birth.” Which should warm our host’s heart 🙂

  9. As for so-called hate speech, Stanley Fish has some good points:

    “[T]here is no such thing as hate speech, if you mean by that designation speech that would be judged hateful by an /independent/ norm. Instead, there is speech that is hateful to some persons because it offends the ideals to which they pledge allegiance. To those who produce the speech, however, it is not hateful but needful, and they will hear as hateful (or perverse or dangerous) speech that offends against /their/ ideals. An utterance is hate speech so long as someone or group will find it objectionable, and since this is a requirement almost any utterance will meet, hate speech is not a limitable category and can be anything (that’s why it is no thing), even the Declaration of Independence or the Golden Rule. It follows, then, that hate speech and rationality cannot be /generally/ opposed, for whether a form of speech is one or the other will depend on the prior investments of those who produce and receive it. Hate speech, so called, is always at once someone’s rationality and someone else’s abomination.”

    (Fish, Stanley. /The Trouble With Principle./ Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. p. 70)

    “In the end, then, hate speech can be defined only as speech produced by persons whose ideas and viewpoints you despise and fear. /Hate speech is what your enemy says loudly/, and if you are lucky enough to prevail in an election, you may be able to get your enemy’s speech labeled “hateful.” But when political fortunes turn (as they always will), your enemies will then do to you and your speech what you have done to them. Because hate speech is not a thing—you can’t point to it as you can point to a chair—there is nothing to be done about it that is not an exercise of political power, an exercise directed at a form of speech a current majority dislikes and fears. Any regulation of hate speech will be political, and /non/-regulation of hate speech will be political too because it will give a governmental imprimatur to words whose harmful effects some citizens will suffer and seek to proscribe by law.”

    (Fish, Stanley. /The First: How to Think about Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post-Truth, and Donald Trump./ New York: One Signal Publishers/Atria, 2019. p. 51)

    1. While I do agree with Fish’s explanation for many cases of so called hate speech, I don’t think it covers all cases. Actually, I’m sure it doesn’t. It’s not always true that hate speech, “is always at once someone’s rationality and someone else’s abomination.” In some cases everyone, including the person uttering it, would interpret the speech as being hateful.

      If the argument reduces to, “But the person sincerely does feel that way and believes it’s right to do so,” that’s not a winning argument IMO. It may be a true statement but it doesn’t make any so called hate speech they may utter not hateful. We don’t live in a pristinely objective model reality, we live in social groups composed of human animals. As a society we can and should make judgements about what is ethical and what isn’t, and our laws should be informed by those ethical judgements.

      Note, I am not convinced that hate speech laws are a good idea and I don’t think the cases of it I’m thinking of here warrant hate speech laws. I’m just opining that Fish isn’t covering all cases.

  10. we don’t live in an Orwellian society, one with a Gestapo or Stasi:
    That’s almost exactly what the judge said, word for word, in the judgement of the case brought by Harry Miller in relation to the “non-hate crime incident” recorded after his “don’t mis-species me” Twitter joke.

  11. The sex-is-a-spectrum and sacred pronoun packages are like comic-book versions of what was called radical psychiatry 50 years ago. But when R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz criticized the use of the term “mental illness”, they specified that schizophrenic behavior could be viewed as a personal means for coping with mental distress—they did not argue that the schizophrenic’s delusions should be accepted by society at large, let alone written into law. Similarly, the complaints about “whiteness” in STEM, and the cult of indigenous Other Ways of Knowing, both depend on comic-book vulgarization of Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.

    Our current “woke”” pop-Left rests on similar, childish stick-drawings copying earlier, much more sophisticated disquisitions. Where did these crude copies come from? They come from a vein of mock-scholarship rich in utterances like “E=mc2 is a sexed equation” and “Machinic autopoiesis takes the role of the other for humans, alluding to ‘zones of partial proto-subjectivation’”. When universities stamped their imprimatur on academic baloney of this sort, marked by lower intellectual quality than astrology, they generated the entire culture of these comic book copies.

  12. Doctors do guess about sex at birth. They are roughly 99.9% right. Exceptions exist. For example, Caster Semenya was born with a vagina and thought (incorrectly) to be female. However, he is a 46,XY male with testes (internal), no ovaries, and no uterus. He has normal levels of Testosterone. In one area in the Dominican Republic, this is actually somewhat common. See “The extraordinary case of the Guevedoces”. The 5-ARD condition is somewhat common in this area. Semenya is also 5-ARD.

  13. We’re actually at least 99.98% right, given that the incidence of DSDs is 1 in 5600 live births. But the “guess” accuracy is much higher than that, even. Most DSDs present with genitalia that are visibly ambiguous at birth and so in those cases we don’t guess. When the perplexed parents ask, “Um…what is it?”, we say, “Unfortunately right this second we can’t say for sure. Fortunately your baby seems healthy otherwise.”… or other carefully chosen words that people who deliver babies learn to to say when anything seems amiss at birth. In almost all cases, the baby’s sex can be determined with certainty….if the need for formal determination is driven by ambiguous genitalia. (How to raise the child is out of scope here.)

    So the wrong “guesses” are confined to those babies who have apparently normal genitalia but turn out to be the opposite genetic sex*. These cases are much much rarer than 1 in 5600 births. The ones that have well-defined frequency — 5-ARD, while “rare”, apparently does not — are individually in the range of 1 in 20,000 – 50,000 births. They are all so rare that while ambiguous genitalia are not all that surprising, parents being aware of the concept of “birth defects”, the discovery in adolescence that one is fully opposite (in a sense) to how one has been brought up is flabbergasting.

    But none of this has anything to do with trans or gender. The argument that gender ideologues make is that gender is a soul that may or may not accord with sex observed at birth, even if that observation was 100% accurate because DSDs didn’t exist. The soul is simultaneously immutable and yet subject to encouragement and malleability to be shaped in the desired direction by gender-affirming care, but must not be shaped in the other direction by “conversion therapy” or even by normal puberty. If the soul is male, the presence of fully intact functional female genitalia and secondary sex characteristics is a barrier to the true expression of that male soul. This is really a theological argument. The more times I have to write it, the more nonsensical it sounds.

    Any baby with unambiguously female genitalia will almost always “fit in” growing up as a girl because, for embryologic reasons, female external genitalia indicate the absence of dihydrotestosterone effects on the embryo including the brain. 5-ARD is uniquely perplexing because the male hormone at puberty is testosterone. Some XY children with 5-ARD may therefore appear to “change” from female to male-ish, particularly the secondary sex characteristics which are what everyone sees as they go through puberty.

    Caster Semenya’s medical history has been selectively leaked without her consent and it would be ethically inappropriate for me to comment on her as an individual. I do note that her disqualification by World Athletics has recently been overturned by a European court.
    * At this level of complexity, genetic, gonadal, and gametic sex are not always identical. I am sticking with genetic sex even though that determination may not be sufficient by itself to diagnose the person accurately.

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