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Misunderstood, misquoted or mistake?
Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has incurred the wrath of thousands with his Twitter comments on Down’s syndrome. Was he really saying what people read? Or was this a case of comments taken out of context?
The social media came alight last week with the fury over comments made by a British academic concerning the right to abortion. Prompted by a case from Ireland, he opined that the refusal to allow termination was a reflection on the uncivilized nature of that country and of the Roman Catholic Church. This led to responses concerning the number of terminations of babies diagnosed with Down’s syndrome and querying whether or not Dawkins felt this was ‘civilised’. Dawkins response was unequivocal; it would be immoral to bring a child with Down’s syndrome into the world if you had the choice.
Cue the Twitter outcry and the indignation and bile of people incensed by both his opinion and the way he chose to frame it.
Dawkins – who is he?
Richard Dawkins is a prominent academic whose writings on genetics and ethnology have given him the nickname of ‘Darwin’s Rottweiler’. Dawkins is famously atheist and humanist, described as ‘the catalyst that galvanizes’ the movement of secularism. He certainly has a movie-star aura around him with numerous high profile media followers and a foundation set up to promote the removal of the influence of religion and de-stigmatize atheism from science, education and public policy.
He is also no stranger to controversy and is a skilled user of social media to raise his profile and that of his foundation.
Did he really mean it?
The comments that drew such furious responses last week were his own and unadulterated. Twitter does have the benefit of presenting the comments of the writer in all their nakedness; the lack of scope to expound is a consequence of the 140-character limit to each tweet. Therefore, what you put down is open to interpretation by the reader but is EXACTLY what you wrote, unlike sound bites to other media that can be manipulated, edited and altered.
So yes, he said it. Did he mean it? Well the backlash from his original tweet drew an apology from him days later, explaining that he was merely expounding his ‘pro-choice stance’ He wrote: "If your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down's baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child's own welfare."
He went on to say that he had not expected his millions of followers to see the comments, just those who were following the correspondence between him and the woman posing the original question. This seems rather a naïve view from one so skilled in the use of media to promote his ideas. So yes, he meant it too.
Perhaps Richard Dawkins should have employed the tactic of ‘save draft and consider before publishing’ but, of course, that is the beauty and the curse of Twitter. The responses to his comments across the web have done much to illustrate the positive, inspiring and wonderful lives of people with Down’s syndrome and their friends and family who posted in reply.
Whatever your view and opinion of the man and his message, some good publicity has resulted from his courting of infamy.