Richard Dawkins’ Views On Student Activism Are Bollocks

With student protests against racism sweeping campuses across the U.S., many would-be pundits have been unable to resist weighing in. Chief among them: famous scientist and infamous “Internet crank” Richard Dawkins. Prior to his comments last week comparing clock-making wunderkind student Ahmed Mohamed to an ISIS child soldier, the atheist advocate and evolutionary biologist concentrated his energies on complaining about the actions of student activists.

Concerning the protests that erupted at Yale, Dr. Dawkins said:

This is not the first time Dawkins has accused protesting students of being nothing more than spoiled children unfit for university life. In the wake of students demonstrating against the transphobic speech of Germaine Greer at the University of Cardiff, Dawkins asserted:

Dawkins’ willingness to rant without context on Twitter has made him popular among a certain set of white male atheists, but his views on universities are actually quite at odds with the aspirations of the one to which he is attached. Oxford University — my current home, where I am obtaining a master’s degree — has a newfound commitment to safe spaces that is in direct conflict with Dawkins’ views.

More than that, this commitment has its roots in the very thing Dawkins seems to object to vis a vis Cardiff and Yale — student protests and campaigns. Both an alum and a professor of the university, Dr. Dawkins is associated with New College, though he seldom lectures given his atheist activism and writing outside the college sphere. His association with the university, however, is central to his credibility in the wider world — which makes the fact that he is so at odds with the university’s policies so deeply strange and troubling.

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Oxford itself has become increasingly receptive to activism within the student body. This isn’t to say it’s not without problems, of course; as the oldest university in the English speaking world, Oxford has for centuries been the domain of white male academics. Just last year, student protests shut down a “debate” about abortion on campus that was set to take place between two cisgender white men. The very fact that this debate was going to happen speaks to the ways the university still fails to be a safe space for marginalized people; women, in particular, continue to battle for recognition on campus, despite massive strides made toward equality in recent years.

But as Dawkins condemns these protests and fights for proper recognition as anti-intellectual, the movements are in reality bolstering the intellectual space of the university by broadening the discourse beyond just white men.

One example? New students at the university have long gone through an induction process called “Freshers’ Week.” During this time, freshers — “freshmen” in American parlance — are made to sit through hours of induction ceremonies, formal dinners, and lectures about exam regulations. Within the last two years, as part of this tradition, the university has implemented mandatory consent workshops for all the colleges in the university system. This is in large part due to the protests and advocacy of some past women’s studies students whose efforts have included a stream of meetings with the heads of various departments in the college, letter writing campaigns, and numerous op-eds in university newspapers.

The major messages that the university currently attempts to impress on freshers is that the university strives to be a space where they can explore, where they can learn, where they feel safe to move around and explore their fields of inquiry, to challenge, to push boundaries, and yet to remain mentally, sexually, and physically safe and healthy. Welfare programs — which here mean student counseling, nurse and clinic services, and basic sexual health care — are commonplace at every college. My college’s graduate welfare rep provides condoms, pregnancy tests, and information about sexual health testing — in addition to bi-weekly teas for checking in on how students are feeling and progressing. The welfare practice has always been available in some capacity, but specific welfare programs amongst the students in the colleges is a relatively new practice, developed in response to students dropping out over mental health difficulties throughout the 1990s/2000s. In 2010, there was a large push from the Oxford University Student Union to make changes after the failures of other college welfare programs were disclosed. As a result of these protests and discussions, Oxford welfare programs improved.

University of Oxford's historic Balliol College (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
University of Oxford’s historic Balliol College (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Other policies Dawkins would find repugnant at his very own university include trigger warnings, gender-neutral language, spaces built just for students of color, celebrations of differences in faith and practice, dress codes at student dances, and a college administration that is as responsive as a behemoth, centuries old, administration can be.

But contrary to what Dawkins seems to believe, these energies spent on creating safe spaces on campus actually facilitate more and better discussions. When students feel like they can be entirely themselves inside and outside of the classroom (say, a trans woman feeling safe to be out on campus and knowing she has protections within the university), they can contribute better and more fully to the intellectual rigor of the discussions at the university. The testimonies of professors like Angus Johnston indicate that the attention to safety throughout the university can improve intellectual discourse.

Oxford is, of course, a very stressful environment; it is an academic space where disparate viewpoints are actively bandied about and confronted. As with most major university settings, many within this space are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, while others are better classified as bleeding-heart liberals. The meeting of such large groups of massively discordant mindsets will naturally see a lot of tension — controversial and confrontational ideologies are unavoidable for everyone. And these ideological conflicts are natural — which is partly what Dawkins is arguing. The university’s nascent efforts, however, focus on ensuring that students feel safe and comfortable — physically, mentally, and emotionally — so that they may better pursue these debates.

Such efforts are showing an effect on the bottom line of the university, too — and in a good way. While men still outnumber women at the university, more women are applying and getting in than ever before. Many of these women come to study in STEM fields, which is one area in which Oxford researchers are world leaders. Many leading professors at Oxford are women. Transgender and non-binary identified students are on the rise as well, signaling that an education at Oxford is becoming more accessible to students who don’t identify within the traditional gender binary. Indeed, on admissions applications, Oxford introduced the gender neutral title “Mx” in 2014, thanks to activism around the UK.

Within my own women’s studies program, which is admittedly more progressive than most, we have a couple of non-binary and agender students, as well as several queer-identified women. When I speak to most of my fellow students about Dawkins, the response is a sigh and an eye-roll — most of the students actually involved in activism here, despite being his fellow atheists, believe he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Their attitude exemplifies the great canyon of difference between Dawkins’ view of academic freedom and the current student body’s attitude toward discourse and protest on campus.

The progress is messy, but the progress happens. My fellow women’s studies student, Tadiwa Madenga, writes poignantly about the anti-racist Rhodes Must Fall movement on campus at Skin Deep:

“I wanted to tell [the Chancellor] that I was not deceived, and that there was nothing modern about Oxford, and that if he was happy to have me here he should care about what it cost my people to make this university beautiful.”

In other words, marginalized students recognize that they are entering into a traditional “unsafe” space, but they also recognize that they have the ability to change and make these unsafe spaces safer.

Oxford has a long way to go, and the free speech issue remains a thorny one on both sides of the pond. But, as we watch the protests at Mizzou, Yale, and Oxford this year, it’s worth considering that Dawkins simply doesn’t realize how his own university works. Or, as the case may be, that he simply doesn’t like that his university is opening itself up to voices that are different from his own.

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Lead image: Flickr/Liberal Democrats

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