The Right to Walk Away

Sue Blackmore has an article up on Richard Dawkins’s website regarding a hundred or so students who deigned to walk away from a lecture on memes she was giving. She expected “people to listen and then argue and disagree if they wished to” as opposed to exercising their right not to be denigrated or insulted by walking away. Note that she wasn’t prevented from speaking, though she was accosted afterwards (which was entirely not-cool, please don’t misunderstand me as being in favour of post-lecture ambushes….).

Her article is an exercise in bullshit and spin. Here’s why:

What’s the minimum quantity of ridicule that you think people are obligated to sit through? I realise that this is difficult to quantify exactly, but let’s keep it fuzzy: zero? A little? A moderate amount? A lot?

What’s the minimum intensity of that ridicule that you think people are obligated to sit through? Low intensity? Moderate? High?

Put those two things together, and you’re likely going to get a contextual basis. Myself, I’m going to go for “none“: no-one is obligated to sit through any amount of ridicule, regardless of how mild it is. We each have our own limits to that, and only an asshole thinks that they have a right to ridicule people, and those people have an obligation to sit and take it.

Blackmore states that “I was told they were of 45 nationalities and I assumed many different religions”, so it’s clear that she was aware that the audience that she’s preparing for is likely to be religious. It’s important to bear in mind that Blackmore is not, herself, religious, but considers herself to be a “vociferous atheist” (which I’m down with, and would consider myself to be also), so when she denigrates a religion, it really doesn’t matter that she’s denigrating many religions, only that she’s denigrating groups to which she doesn’t belong. This is important, and we’ll revisit this point later.

Blackmore, an English person, was speaking at Oxford University, an institution that goes back for almost 1000 years. According to the Wikipedia entry, 26 Prime Ministers have been educated there. The UK has been (and, arguably, is) one of the primary colonial powers of the world. Certainly, no other country has come close to the level of power that the UK extended into the world at the height of the British Empire, and many nations (Ireland, Pakistan, India) owe their very shape to the UK and the power that it projected. To ignore Oxford’s hand in the history of colonialism of the UK is to close one’s eyes to history.

Moreover, the current climate of political and public discourse is strongly anti-Muslim. While it’s not quite as bad as the height of the anti-Muslim mania, there are still semi-regular articles in various tabloids holding anti-Muslim positions. This is, of course, in addition to the anti-Muslim platforms of several politicians, and the explicit anti-not-an-Anglo-Saxon position that is held by the British National Party. You may not consider them that big a deal, given that they don’t currently hold any national-level seats, but they still received over half a million votes in the 2010 election. That should give some sense of the climate in the UK.

So this is the context to the lecture: a White Atheist in an institution that cannot be separated from the racist and colonial policies of the last several centuries of the UK stood in front of a room of people of mixed ethnicities and religions, many of whom (given the historical reach of the UK) were likely to have come from countries that are still recovering from the UK’s involvement, and she mocks them and their beliefs.

And they had the audacity to walk away. How dare they…………………………………

She mocked Christians too (and, I’ve no doubt, other religions), but given that Christians hold a position of privilege in the UK, and other religions are certainly not maligned in the same way as Islam is, then the fact that these other religions were included is irrelevant. If I intentionally insult 20 different people, and it happens to be the case that 1 of them is insulted on a regular basis than all the rest, then *I’m* the asshole, not that one person. Hell, I’m arguably the asshole for choosing to insult all those people in the first place. Moreover, as someone who is not a member of any of the groups being mocked (that I can tell, she didn’t mention in her article whether she mocked any atheists or not), she’s very much creating a ‘me vs you’ environment.

Of course, Blackmore (allegedly a professional communicator) lays her failure at the feet of the people who walked away. Rather than discussing memes in an ostensibly neutral way, she labeled Muslim practices as “strange”, picked images known to be taken to be offensive, and then declared the people who chose not to listen as unable to “face dissent, or think for themselves”. What utter bullshit. Everyone has the right to walk away from a conversation they don’t want to be part of, especially if it’s not actually a conversation, but a lecture (and thus the balance of power is lop-sided).

Atheists often complain (and rightly) that the religious don’t take ownership of their screwups. This is a criticism that should also be applied to Blackmore.

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2 responses to “The Right to Walk Away”

  1. I agree with you. I was particularly disgusted when she told Muslims to look away because she was going to show images that were offensive to them. How demeaning. She kept saying she was hurt and confused. Bullshit.

  2. Aye. I’m certainly not saying that ‘religion shouldn’t have been in the talk’, as that was relevant to the topic.

    But demeaning the people who follow those religions was not, at all, relevant.

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