Daily Archives: February 27, 2010

An “Open Letter to Richard Dawkins” revised

I admit up front that I’m going all paternalistic on the Dawkins Forum people, and Imma gonna let you finish your imminent self destruction and all, but first I wanted to use this moment in time as an object lesson in communication.

A letter was recently posted somewhere by the RDF forum staff to Richard, and most of this letter was reposted in a comment on this thread by Peter.

When I read it, I laughed and cried and hacked up my coffee all over the keyboard, which is a problem because we are almost totally out of espresso here and that coffee was needed. So, I sent my family on a mission to get some more coffee, and decided to do a first-cut rewrite on the letter.

I assume that the purpose of the letter should be to convince Richard Dawkins to bring the staff to the table in the conversation about how to make the transition, to listen to their ideas (which I understand have already, in part, been posted) and to welcome them into the process as continuing volunteers.

The letter does in fact make this argument, but it also does some other things. You can assume as a staff member that Richard either trusts and/or likes his main people or not and that your yammering about how evile and unfair they have been to you is not only a distraction from the point of the letter, but a clear indication that the staff are not really ready to help. This yammering is, rather, a clear indication of the staff’s need to make sure that blame is squarely placed where they think it should be placed. Most of the verbiage and effort expended on this letter focuses on that goal. The best possible outcome from that is distracting the person to whom the letter is written. The worst outcome is probably en-maddening him, and verifying that the staff are not really worth engaging with.

This leads to another element of the letter that is more subtle. If the staff are really correct about how badly handled this has all been by Dawkins’ people, then there should be a certain amount of screaming and yelling and rending of cloth over Dawkins’ management style. But there is not. As the lady in the commercial says, “You don’t get a discount for agreeing with me.” … especially when the letter is all about making sure there is lots of blame stirred up, mixed with sticky glue, and smeared all over the places it seems to go. Sycophants can only get so far because, well, they don’t get much respect.

All I did to this letter was to delete all the arm waving about who did what and how horrible everyone is, changed a few words here and there, and more or less left what I assume to be the key message intact. If I were me, and not Dawkins, I’d look at these two letters and think … “Yeah… if these forum staff could truly rid themselves of the blame-smearing yammering part, they’d be great. They are making great points, but the whole problem is that these points are embedded in this harsh and useless cultural baggage.”

I understand why the letter was written as it was, but my advice is this: Yes, write a letter like this if it will make you feel better. Then edit the arm waving out of it. Then edit it again for style and to make sure your key points are very clearly and well stated (and don’t let the yammering back in when you do that).

Then read it over and tweak it.

Then red it over and tweak it again.

Making the argument is often a matter of refining both the argument and the presentation. Rarely does adding self victimization, outrage and large booming sounds help.

So here is the original letter as posted here by Peter:

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