There’s Plenty of Oppression to Go Around, Richard Dawkins.

Richard Dawkins opened his foot-shaped mouth again this weekend, suggesting that advocates for trigger warnings treat victims of rape and assault like children who need their teddy bears:

Rightfully, feminists like Jason Thibeault pointed out some of Dawkins inconsistencies:



Given Dawkins’ history of support for projects like the Secular Safezone, his continued distaste for the syllabus equivalent of a TV discretionary warning is baffling. It’s important to note that Dawkins did not pen the Secular Safezone articles on his site, as Dawkins rarely posts original content there (most of the site’s content reads like the RSS feed version of a circle jerk).  Maybe the Dawkins content-aggregation algorithm has posted some pro-trigger warning articles in the past! Let’s go take a look. Hrrm… a quick search of his site for “trigger warning” returns not one, not two, but NINE articles by Jerry Coyne on the first results page.

Five of Coyne’s pieces are expressly anti-trigger warning (two of them indicate trigger warnings will be the downfall of free speech), three of them glibly offer trigger warnings for “Long and detailed discussion of a genetics paper,” “snakes,” and “Greensleeves,” while another conflates GMO labels with trigger warnings. That Jerry Coyne is a real joker. Mental health is such a riot!

Dawkins is right about one thing: Secular Safezones have an important place, especially in areas where being non-religious (or not belonging to the majority religion) can lead to marginalization. But if he acknowledges that, how can he argue that same care isn’t warranted for those coping with PTSD from rape, assault, or other trauma? Does Richard Dawkins think there isn’t enough oppression to go around? That if he shows compassion for victims of assault or rape, his pet cause won’t get enough recognition? Or is the reality more damning? Maybe Richard Dawkins truly doesn’t think rape is common or traumatic enough to necessitate a change in our education system. If that’s the case, then this is nothing more than oppression olympics. 

Many feminists acknowledge that we can’t write off certain types of oppression, simply because they are less prevalent. Feminists like Stephanie Zvan have acknowledged that even white male atheists face some level of marginalization because of their lack of religion. Last year she wrote, “Mild forms of oppression are not the same as a lack of oppression. We know what microaggressions are. We understand how they affect access to spaces. That doesn’t change when we’re talking about atheists, even atheists who annoy us.” 

Even if we accept Dawkins’ premise that rape isn’t common or traumatic enough to necessitate trigger warnings (and I don’t), his argument falls apart when viewed in the context of his support for secular safe spaces. Dawkins claims to value intellectual rigor, and part of that rigor means demanding intellectual consistency. It is breathtakingly illogical to advocate for secular safe spaces while simultaneously demeaning safe spaces for those who don’t fit your ideological narrative. In a society that constantly demeans people who push against the predominant cultural narrative, we should be focused on eliminating all types of marginalization – not just those that affect us personally.

Featured image by Dave Fayram

Courtney Caldwell

Courtney Caldwell is an intersectional feminist. Her talents include sweary rants, and clogging your social media with pictures of her dogs (and occasionally her begrudging cat). She's also a political nerd, whose far-left tendencies are a little out of place in the deep red Texas.

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  1. I think it’s important to note that this comes after another revelation of a top notch scientist serially assaulting students over decades. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
    As for safe spaces: I’m glad my university offered one. It quite likely saved my life and allowed me to get back on track. I guess according to Dawkins I should just have gone home and killed myself, ’cause that was something I thought about from time to time…

    1. A very important observation, indeed! When viewed in that lens, this very much comes off as “protecting their own.”

      I’m very glad you were able to get the help you need at your uni. I hope others are as well. <3

  2. Dawkins is wrong, but I don’t think trigger warnings are anything like advocating religion in the classroom. Trigger warnings are important and sometimes very necessary. They are meant to accommodate the educational needs of students with special needs. Trigger warnings are not a kindness. They’re like providing left handed desks. Trigger warnings just being friendly to people with PTSD. Based on past experience with PTSD, we know some people need to be warned.

    Advocating a religious view in the classroom — like teaching any personal or political belief — undermines education. It’s an inappropriate use of resources and an abuse of power to use your position to recruit. As an educator, your job is to teach the course material.

    Trigger warnings are not a form of bias in the classroom or equivalent to brainwashing your students. In trying to point out Dawkins’ inconsistencies, you’ve inadvertently made a very dangerous comparison.

  3. I’m confused. That tweet is fairly vague and I had assumed (someone shared it on facebook) it was in reference to university groups protesting against certain speakers being allowed to speak on their campus. How do you know it is in reference to trigger warnings. I don’t see anything linking this to trigger warnings, rape victims ot PTSD. Can you clarify?

  4. I can’t believe I’m about to play devil’s advocate to Richard Dawkins, but was the comment made in the context of trigger warnings or of campus guest speakers? Because skeptical speakers have been blocked under the banner of promoting “safe spaces”.

  5. Asking for trigger warnings on potentially triggering speech: OK

    Banning speech because you find it offensive: Not OK

    Dawkins was speaking about the latter, not the former. Not saying he won’t say something about trigger warnings today, but that tweet in context is speaking about the banning of speech because some find it offensive. In that regard, I agree with him.

    1. First, Dawkins has come out against trigger warningsa nd accomodations before.
      Second: students protesting against giving horrible people a platform at their university (quite likely a paid platform) is not “banning speech”. It is actually more free speech. It is also not the powerful silencing the weak, quite the other way around. Not getting a paid gig is not a free speech issue.
      Would you support a student protest over a university inviting radical religious speaker who prominently espouses that “marital rape doesn’t exist” and that “women are subservient to men because god made them”? Or would you support the university and the speaker against the students?
      Third: What’s that to do with a safe space? A safe space means that you are accepted in your identity, especially the parts that are beyond your control, and not discriminated against for it. So what message does it send to trans students if the university punblicly endorses somebody whose views on your identity are bigoted, hateful and align with those of people who seek to discriminate against you? “Trans panic” is a legal defense in many jurisdictions and it uses the exact same arguments Greer is putting forward.

      1. First: Agreed, but it’s off topic for the statement of his quoted here.

        Second: Yes I would, and I would support the rebuttal to those statements piece by piece. People need to know why these statements are wrong. You are not protecting people by stopping speech, you are failing to provide them with the tools to understand why these ideas are flawed.

        Most people who believe these things believe them out of ignorance, not malevolence (especially in religious dogma, such as the examples you provided). I think it is very important to consider ideas you are opposed to, because sometimes you can gain understanding as to why others hold these ideas, and depending on the idea, you may even find you change your mind or alternately, be even more objected to that idea.

        Let’s take the example of Marital rape you provided. I interact with people all the time who say things like, “who are we to judge cultures other than our own?”, and it’s important that they are shown what is being said, so you can point to it and say: “This is not a culture that should be protected. The rejection of human rights is not a culture with value. Think about who you are defending when you fail to condemn that action, and think about who you are failing to protect.”

        Third: Nothing at all. I think all Universities should provide safe spaces on campus, and many of them. Speakers at these Universities should not be conducting their speech in these areas.

    2. Considering that Germaine Greer, the person who Dawkins is talking about in this case, has been able to broadcast her views at full volume on primetime national TV in the country where this story is taking place, I’m not sure in what sense this is “banning speech”

  6. Let’s not forget Richard Dawkins himself has called for the disinvitation of people from speaking at university events. He wrote an open letter to University of Vermont calling for Ben Stein to be disallowed from speaking and receiving an honorary degree. So it’s time for him and his supporters to stop pretending all his complaining about students calling for people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Germaine Greer to be disinvited from their campuses is about academic freedom or freedom of speech. When it’s something he cares about, he deems it worthy of protest and disinvitation, but when it’s people he agrees with, it’s “erasing people’s speech.” He’s a hypocrite and a bigot.

  7. I must raise an eyebrow at the notion that the Iliad is somehow triggering for students of color. It wasn’t for me. But then again, I’ve learned repeatedly that ethnic studies classes don’t actually represent our viewpoint. From the indigenous perspective at least, it only represents the viewpoint white liberals wish we had.

  8. I don’t support trigger-warnings being generally obligatory. It’s easy to think of some exceptions, like movies because they’re so visual and are obviously *intended* to have an immediate emotional impact on viewers . But printed materials – books and pamphlets, etc? It’s far *too* easy to stop reading. To disagree on this point amounts to claiming that it would be *unexceptional* for a single sentence (or two) to have a serious effect on a person who has experienced what the sentence describes. Surely such a person should be seen as needing urgent therapy, not trigger warnings? There IS effective therapy for PTSD.

    Some “hip” comedians won’t even play to college campuses any more (Seinfeld, Rock)? Are they just terribly insensitive folks who need to go away now because they’re suddenly cultural dinosaurs instead of cultural commentators?

    It’s safe to say that veterans suffer the worst PTSD, and they have a terrible suicide rate, proving that PTSD is a big deal. But what about Triggers? When we hear of soldier suicides, or murders, or flashbacks, the media never reports how there was a “trigger”. They just snap, the trigger was 100% inside them.

    tl;dr – I’m not saying a paragraph can’t hurt anyone. I’m just saying that it has to be seen as one of life’s many (non-fatal!) hazards that’s too commonplace for there to be a remedy that isn’t worse than the problem it’s meant to solve.

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