Over the course of our festival weekend, a few people once again raised concerns with us on our social media over inviting Professor Richard Dawkins to Greenbelt. The same concerns were raised way back when we first announced him back in March. At that time we blogged about how we were planning to host the conversation and since then we’ve updated folks with more precisely the territory of the conversation itself.
When these latest concerns started to appear on Twitter on Saturday, we were, of course, reading them and monitoring them and deciding the best way to properly respond and engage in the midst of running the festival. We began to write our response – in a series of tweets. Not easy, given the complexity and the seriousness of the subject matter.
In the end we decided against publishing before Dawkins took to the stage, but for the sake of total honesty and transparency, and because we stand by what we’ve written here, here is our draft of the nine-tweet thread we would have posted in reply:
This is a complex issue, as you say, and almost impossible to discuss on a platform like twitter. We will do our best to explain our thinking through a few tweets. Please bear with us. [1/9]
We appreciate that Professor Dawkins has been involved in controversy around this topic, and that some will choose to interpret some of his past comments as proof of the charges levelled against him. [2/9]
We would respectfully suggest that Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, who is on record as saying he deplores eugenics: “Heaven forbid that we should do it. A eugenic policy would be bad.” [3/9]
We hope we’re not stating the obvious to say that we would never invite someone we thought was a eugenicist to our festival. [4/9]
We’d ask anyone who has fears about what his appearance here says about us to look at the kind of festival we are, the kind of space we create, the spectrum of people who make our festival what it is. [5/9]
As you’d expect, we take our responsibility to curate that space incredibly seriously. We have to. We’ve written about that care and curation in depth here:
As we say in that blog post, this means that from the very first invite we send out, we’re involved in a ‘conversation’ that develops over time with the speaker or artist. We talk about who we are, the space we’re making, and why it is that we’d like them to be part of that. [7/9]
As part of our conversation with Richard Dawkins, we’re really clear about what we’ve invited him to talk about (in conversation with Giles Fraser). You can read more about that here, along with one or two other speakers we have had questions about. https://www.greenbelt.org.uk/statements/#greenbelt-2022-speakers [8/9]
Thank you for bearing with us. We know we won’t be able to answer everyone’s questions here, and after the festival we’d be happy to discuss more. As we said, it’s a complex, emotive issue that we can never fully explore on here, but we hope this has been helpful. [9/9]
Now, after Dawkins has been with us, we can only say that we’ll continue to listen (and learn). Giles Fraser (his conversation partner) was able to respectfully push Dawkins on his comments about Down’s Syndrome. Dawkins said that his choice of language had been unfortunate and also that his comments had been taken and shared out of a wider, more nuanced context.
As we concluded the moderated Q&A from our audience, the final message we passed on was an invitation from the L’Arche groups present for Dawkins to join them for a meal at one of their community houses. He couldn’t stay long enough on-site to be able to attend L’Arche’s community-led foot-washing service in our Shelter worship venue later that afternoon. Next time, perhaps.
We passed on every single question that our audience posed in the field for him to take away with him. The recording of the conversation with Giles Fraser is available via our website. And Giles will be referencing the conversation in his ‘Thought For The Day’ on Radio 4 tomorrow morning (Tuesday 30th August 2022).
We know this won’t make some peoples’ concerns and issues go away about booking Richard Dawkins to speak. But we hope it – together with our blogs and statements – at least explains our thinking and gives you a sense of our process. We will continue to try and host challenging conversations at Greenbelt while working hard to ensure the space we hold open is as safe as it can be.