Cancel Culture

By Canceling Richard Dawkins, the American Humanist Association Has Betrayed Its Values

The drive to punish dissenters from various orthodoxies is itself illiberal.


Last week, the American Humanist Association (AHA) stripped British author Richard Dawkins of his 1996 Humanist of the Year award after he made a comment on Twitter that offended some in the transgender community.

"Regrettably, Richard Dawkins has over the past several years accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalized groups, an approach antithetical to humanist values," said the AHA. "His latest statement implies that the identities of transgender individuals are fraudulent, while also simultaneously attacking Black identity as one that can be assumed when convenient."

This is nonsense: Dawkins had raised a point that it is perfectly worthy of discussion, in accordance with the rationalist philosophy of the humanist movement. But it would also have been ridiculous for the organization to punish Dawkins even if the remark had been offensive, given that many of its past awardees have espoused controversial views, and even said insensitive things on Twitter.

Here was Dawkins' tweet, which concerned Rachel Dolezal, a chapter president of the NAACP who engendered controversy for identifying as black even though she was a white woman:

If it's disqualifying to express confusion about progressives' simultaneous embrace of transgender people and vehement rejection of transracial people, I suppose that I will never win a Humanist of the Year award. I wrote the following in my 2019 book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump:

If we accept, as many on the left do, that people can identify as female even though they were born male, why is it unthinkable for people to identify as black when they were born white? How can the left embrace transgender people without even considering the possibility that there could be transracial people? (Race, after all, is more obviously socially constructed than gender. While our conception of gender is at least partly based on biological differences between the sexes, the same is not true for race.)

The point is not to demean transgender people, but to question why people like Dolezal instantly warranted pariah status. Dawkins subsequently clarified that it was not his intention "to ally in any way with Republican bigots in US now exploiting this issue."

But according to the AHA, this clarification evinced "neither sensitivity nor sincerity." Dawkins' name is no longer listed on the website's awardees page.

Perusing this page reveals something interesting: There are far more controversial past winners than Dawkins. The AHA gave Humanist of the Year awards to the author and activist Alice Walker—who promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories—and also to Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood who promoted eugenics and white supremacy. Sanger's legacy is so complicated that her own organization is currently disowning her.

The AHA has also given lesser awards to several individuals with a history of provocative statements and bad tweets: Jessica Valenti, Cenk Uygur, and others. To be clear, the AHA is within its rights to give or rescind awards to anyone it wishes, for any reason. But people who support the organization's mission have the same right to criticize it for hypocrisy.

Two such critics are Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker, who won the Humanist of the Year award in 2011 and 2006, respectively. Goldstein and Pinker wrote an open letter to the AHA calling on it to reverse course:

Dawkins did not call for discrimination against or marginalization of any individual or group. And he explicitly denied any intention to disparage anyone or to lend support to transphobic or racist political movements.  Now, it would still be completely appropriate for those of you who objected to the substance of his tweets to criticize them in The Humanist or other forums, explaining the nature of their objections. But to seek to punish, dishonor, or humiliate a writer rather than engage with his words is a betrayal of humanism.

The Humanist Manifesto III declares that "the lifestance of humanism [is] guided by reason." Since no one is infallible, reason requires that a diverse range of ideas be expressed and debated openly, including ones that some people find unfamiliar or uncomfortable. To demonize a writer rather than address the writer's arguments is a confession that one has no rational response to them.

This illiberal response is all the more damaging to an organization that claims to repudiate the repressive practices of religion. It has not been lost on commentators that an association of "freethinkers" has deemed certain thoughts unthinkable, nor that it is enforcing dogmas and catechisms by excommunicating a heretic. The AHA is turning itself into a laughingstock.

Goldstein and Pinker are quite right. The AHA's own values require tolerance of difficult conversations around public policy subjects, rather than a knee-jerk drive to punish dissenters from orthodoxies.